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Gender is no longer part of conversation about Pat Summitt

Sitting in Thompson-Boling Arena, on the court emblazoned with her name, under the banners of her eight national titles, I watched Pat Summitt deliver her farewell address as head coach of Tennessee's perennially outstanding women's basketball team and thought back to all the times I'd heard, from fans and the radio and message boards, that she ought to be in charge of the men's basketball team, the football team, the entire UT athletic department.

It's an understandable that Vols fans would want the type of success Summitt has had with the women's basketball team, where an Elite Eight finish is considered a down year. But the implication that those would somehow be promotions from Summitt's current position never sits quite right; it's not like either job could possibly have outmatched the early tribulations that came with coaching women's sports before Title IX provisions took effect.

It's local legend that Summitt's annual salary when she was hired to take over the Lady Vols in 1974 at the age of 22 was $8,900 a year. And, in addition to coaching and attending classes while working toward her master's degree, she drove the team van, washed the uniforms and coordinated fundraising efforts for the program.

Just 53 fans witnessed the Lady Vols' first victory under Summitt in January 1975. More than 35 years later she's blazed such a sterling trail through college basketball that you could make up any fantastical statistic about Summitt's career and make it sound entirely plausible -- particularly now that she's about to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The litany has been recited countless times in the wake of her retirement announcement: Eight national titles, 16 conference and conference tournament titles, 18 Final Four appearances. Teams in every NCAA women's tournament since its inception in 1981. And not just an education, but a college degree for every player to complete eligibility.

Looking at these numbers from former Secretary of Education Richard Riley's "Achieving Success Under Title IX," written upon the occasion of the amendment's 25th anniversary in 1997, it's not hard to connect the dots:

Just one year before the enactment of Title IX, in 1971, a Connecticut judge was allowed by law to disallow girls from competing on a boys' high school cross country team even though there was no girls' team at the school. And that same year, fewer than 300,000 high school girls played interscholastic sports. Today, that number is 2.4 million.

[...]

After winning two gold medals in the 1964 Olympics, swimmer Donna de Varona could not obtain a college swimming scholarship: for women, they did not exist. It took time and effort to improve the opportunities for young women: two years after Title IX was voted into law, an estimated 50,000 men were attending U.S. colleges and universities on athletic scholarships -- and fewer than 50 women.

Focus removed on scrabbling for existence, female athletes are now allowed to strive for greatness. Summitt's family had to pick up and move when she was a child to get her into a school district with a girls' basketball program. Ten years ago, for the 30th anniversary of Title IX, she and Tennessee Women's Athletic Director Joan Cronan reflected on the changes in the sport:

"When I think of Title IX, the one word that always comes to my mind is opportunity," Summitt said. "Specifically, it's an opportunity for little girls. As they grow up, if they want to compete in sports then they have that opportunity."

"I've often said I hated that they had to have a law to do what was right, but Title IX came along at the right time," Cronan said.

Summitt, more than anyone, would know. And just look what happened. Able to divert her energies from the "women's work" of laundry to a very different kind of women's work -- coaching basketball -- she went on to capture eight national titles and won nearly 1,100 games.

A funny thing happened toward the end of her career, a phenomenon I think we'll see more and more of on a long enough timeline, and that 40 years later may represent the greatest legacy of Title IX: Gender has fallen out of the Summitt conversation. She can be referred to, casually, as "the greatest college basketball coach," with no qualifiers attached. To throw "women's" in there at this point would be to unfairly shield from her obvious superiority all the men's coaches whose careers she's outshone.

One of Summitt's star players, Candace Parker, was the first woman dunk in an NCAA tournament game. By the time Brittney Griner became the second, in this year's tournament, seeing her highlights on SportsCenter was a matter of course. Her antics became less "OOH, GIRL DUNK" and more "MONSTER ATHLETE ALERT." Notice the lack of gender clarification.

Like Summitt, unburdened with the need to flail for access at every turn, young women can hone their energies for the game. They can make athletics a career. And eventually, sometimes, they'll get to the point where their athletic achievements get mentioned before their gender is brought into the conversation. Some are already on their way. Griner is, simply, a monster athlete. And Summitt? She's just the greatest.

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