National Women in Sports Day Celebrates 20 years

Will Oliver

Will Oliver

Three pioneers in the world of women’s sports with career ties to SDSU held a panel discussion at the celebration of the 20th Annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day at SDSU Feb. 2. Roosevelt High School Athletic Director Lolly Forseth, former SDSU women’s basketball coach Nancy Neiber and the South Dakota High School Activities Association assistant executive director Ruth Rehn – all former state Pathfinder award winners -expounded on the development of women’s opportunities in athletics while reminiscing on their own lives.

“Girls have in their minds that the activities have always been there,” said Rehn, but they are unaware of the struggles overcome in pursuit of equality.

At her first coaching job, Rehn said, all the girls’ teams shared the same uniforms for every sport. She was told that if there was any money left over from purchasing hockey sticks she could use it for new girls’ uniforms.

“I was hoping their sticks didn’t break.”

After leaving the Minnesota school district that placed far too much emphasis on boys’ hockey sticks, Rehn was hired by the South Dakota High School Activities Association in 1974.

Nancy Neiber described her enthusiasm for playing sports as a youngster, mostly by opportunities with neighborhood boys. “I didn’t care if it was ten degrees below zero, we’d pump up that ball and play basketball.”

Neiber said she could compete with all the boys of her age, attributing a good baseball throwing arm to countless hours spent playing catch with her dad. But at a baseball camp where her hat fell off revealing that she was in fact a girl, she was asked to go home because the camp was meant for boys alone.

“That was the first time I realized that little girls didn’t have the same opportunity as boys.”

Neiber was hired as a physical education teacher at Mitchell High School, where she was offered the women’s basketball head coaching position. She did not know the game of basketball, but was determined to learn. Neiber attended boys’ basketball practice all season in an attempt to learn the sport. Fifteen years later she became head women’s basketball coach at SDSU.

Forseth attributes the start of her career to SDSU’s atypical arrangement for her to student teach in Rapid City, where South Dakota’s finest gymnastic squad operated. Gymnastics was the only girls sport offered to high school students at the time of Forseth’s graduation, and she was hired by Lincoln High in Sioux Falls immediately. In 1995 she became athletic director.

“I think I was the first woman athletic director in the state at the time,” said Forseth, “I just wanted to make any and all programs as equitable as possible.”

The women described their childhood experiences as one with preconceived notions of the role of each sex. Offered to boys was physical education; girls were offered home economics. Girls could, however, participate in “play days” three times a year where certain athletics were presented.

In one way or another, each Pathfinder award winner was drawn to SDSU by State’s transition toward a more women-friendly sports atmosphere. Both Forseth and Rehn graduated from SDSU.

“South Dakota State was one of the more proactive schools in the region,” said Neiber.

In 1975, Title IX was implemented. Title IX was a federal law requiring equal opportunities for boys and girls in sports. After it was implemented, 50 percent of women’s basketball coaches were female.

“In three years (that number) dropped down to nine percent,” Rehn said.

Neiber described many women coaches as unprepared and unknowledgeable to coach some sports when women were first given the opportunity to play.

Fourth-year student Alicia Brown attended the panel discussion to find that women’s sports have come a long way.

“I never really thought about how women have fought to have the same participation rights as boys,” said Brown, a Journalism news editorial major. “It kind of reminded me of ‘A League of Their Own.'”

Today, due to Title IX and the dedication of people like Forseth, Neiber, and Rehn, girls share almost all of the same opportunities in sports as boys. Currently ten women’s varsity sports are offered at SDSU.