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50th Anniversary Of Title IX: Sports-Playing Opportunities Have Come A Long Way



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Kelley Johnson’s first soccer-playing experience was with the boys. No cleats — or respect. That was back in the middle 1970s only a few years after Title IX was established and when Newtown was still a few years away from offering girls’ soccer teams. In fact, initially her only opportunity to play was out of town, in Monroe’s boys’ program.

Even a decade later, in the 1980s, Johnson remembers the brushoff girls’ soccer players got back when she played on Newtown High School’s first team. Thrilled to be playing on the new program’s squad — established thanks to the efforts of people including her mom, Ruby Johnson — this teenager and her teammates had to get over to Treadwell Park to play since the high school field was off limits to them. The boys’ coach at the time would not share the space, she recalls.

In this, the 50th anniversary year of the 1972 establishment of Title IX, a federal law that provides gender equality in education — girls’ soccer, like many other female sports — is going strong in town and elsewhere.

While Title IX is not sports specific, athletics falls under the Title IX umbrella, and certainly has come a long way in the last half century. Title IX is commonly associated with sports due to the number of ways girls and women have been impacted.

Johnson’s gender-related hurdles in sports, as many women can relate, began well before high school. In the middle 1970s, she was a Sandy Hook Elementary School third grader who wanted to play organized soccer. Her mom, who played a prominent role with the Sandy Hook School Parent Teacher Association and went to serve on the Newtown Board of Education, encouraged this aspiring soccer player to write a petition to the town’s league director for an opportunity to play. Newtown offered soccer but the league did not begin for elementary grades, Johnson recalls.

It worked, or so Johnson thought.

She recalled getting an invite to play and, the year after her letter, going to the Newtown Middle School field on a rainy day along with classmate Amy Lopez-Cepero for the start of something new and exciting. As it turned out, the league director thought Kelley was a boy.

A write-up from Ruby Johnson detailing the history of girls’ soccer in Newtown, shared with The Bee by Kelley Johnson, detailed how the league director explained to the little girl and her mother that girls couldn’t play soccer. “The coach was very embarrassed and the boys were standing around not knowing what to say to their school friend. After about 30 minutes of arguing with the league director, the coach said let the girl practice with the boys this time,” according to this report.

After the children went out onto the field, the league director told Ruby Johnson to try the town of Monroe league. They did and sure enough, the Monroe league director welcomed anyone, boys or girls, to enjoy the game of soccer. The two girls played in Monroe for several years. In their early-playing days, cleats were only available for boys so the girls wore sneakers, but they were happy just to get out on the field, Johnson said.

“This came with some issues like the other team not being okay with girls on the field or shirts and skins. At the time our jerseys were reversible so the ref would tell us which color our team would be and Kelley and I had to go run looking for a private place to peel our shirts off to get to our assigned team color,” said Lopez-Cepero, who said her mom, Margo Lopez-Cepero, was also involved with the movement for girls having the opportunity to play in town.

Newtown’s First Girls’ Team

“By this time, more girls had moved into Newtown from California and other states that had well-developed girls’ soccer leagues and they put so much pressure on the local Newtown league that they were finally allowed to play in Newtown,” according to the report. “About 1980, the Newtown soccer league decided to try to organize a league just for girls. They needed players and invited the now 7th grade Newtown girl to leave the Monroe league and help to build a strong girls’ soccer team in Newtown.”

“After playing with the boys for so many years the competition was weak and it was not as much fun,” Lopez-Cepero said of that first all-girls’ team experience. “I’m sure that has changed now that little girls have been playing since they were 5 years old.”

Johnson played in Newtown’s first girls’ soccer offering for a few years — it started with only two squads playing each other every week — and continued to play in the once a travel league was established. Back then teammates packed into a few station wagons, including one driven by her mom, and ventured around Connecticut and out of state, including New York, to find competition. In high school, girls again had to fight for a chance to play. With no girls’ team in place at the high school, Ruby Johnson played a key role in the establishment of the first squad, her daughter remembers. She did get to continue playing travel soccer until the establishment of the JV squad in 1983 and played two seasons before graduating.

According to Ruby Johnson’s report: A young father, Steve Bartlett, approached the Superintendent of Schools who was, at first, lukewarm to the idea of a girls’ team. “Creating a new varsity sport at Newtown High School would be expensive and coaches were hard to find. Lots of excuses from various sources were given why girls didn’t need a soccer team. We didn’t have enough soccer fields; it would take money and fields away from field hockey, and would take money away from the boys’ programs, especially football. Although discouraged from pursuing the issue, Steve persisted. Finally, the superintendent said if the girls could raise $1,000, then he would present the idea to the Board of Education.”

“There were many excuses as to why Newtown didn’t want to fund girls’ soccer, the most ridiculous of which was girls shouldn’t play contact sports,” said Kelley Johnson, adding that a Board of Education “no” vote “came from a male member who proudly stated he ‘couldn’t support girls playing soccer because it would take away from boys playing football.’ I’ll never forget those words,” Johnson added.

On June 14, 1983, the Board of Education voted in favor of a girls’ team, subject, in part, to an available qualified coach. Bob Sveda, former Newtown High boys’ soccer coach and then NHS Athletic Director stepped up to coach the team; Sveda is also the 1991 Newtown Bee Sportsman of the Year. Lin Hertberg donated uniforms, and the team got off the ground. It was a junior varsity team in the fall of 1983 and became a varsity squad in 1984.

“It was a long time coming. Ruby Johnson was the one who really went to bat for the girls,” Hertberg said.

This inaugural NHS girls’ team then hit it out of the park as the girls won the Western Connecticut Conference championship (before the South-West Conference was established; and when the NHS teams were known as the Indians before the Nighthawks came to be). There were only five WCC towns with teams in 1984: Bethel, Weston, Brookfield, and New Fairfield were the others. Now there are more than twice the number of conference opponents for Newtown’s girls’ soccer program.

Klaus Ertl was the soccer team’s first assistant coach and later became head coach.

“They were excited they had a team,” said Ertl, who now resides in Florida.

Ertl recalls that girls who had played with the boys prior to high school were among the better players and that when they played with the boys they also stood out. His daughter, Christina, was on that first Newtown High School team.

Hertberg went on to become a coach with Newtown High’s softball team in 2000 and continues to assist with the team to this day. Hertberg donated the softball program’s first scoreboard in 2005, and later the benches, outfield wall, and team banners to help the girls have the same amenities as boys in the baseball program.

Baseball And Sewing Needles

Speaking of baseball, Jeanne Carney, who sent four children through Newtown’s schools — two girls and two boys, all of whom played sports — is happy they had the opportunities not afforded to her in high school. Carney played baseball with the boys as a child and had to switch to softball by the time she got to Eastchester High in New York.

Carney graduated in 1978 and wishes she had the option to play soccer. She and another classmate went to their athletic director seeking establishment of a girls’ soccer team. “Of course we were knocked down right away,” she remembers. “It was one of the sports I couldn’t coach because I never even got to play as a child. I didn’t think I could coach.”

Ruby Johnson’s report indicates that many people thought girls should not be playing contact sports and for years girls had been denied the opportunity to participate in sports. “That started to change when Congress passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act to ensure equal opportunity and equal access for everyone regardless of race or gender. The section dealing with sports became known as Title IX,” according to the report. “Mr Bartlett recognized that Newtown High was in violation of Title IX because there were more boys’ teams than girls’ teams. Establishing a girls’ soccer team would bring the number of teams offered to girls equal to those for boys.”

The importance of equality does not only pertain to the number of teams or participants, but equitable access to facilities, coaches, equipment, uniforms, and money, Johnson notes. There were issues regarding gym and team room space at Newtown throughout the years when she was in school.

Title IX has done much more than help with sports. Carney said in high school she wanted to take woodworking class but the girls were not allowed and, instead, had to take Home Economics. “I hated sewing. One day I took all the needles out of the sewing machines and threw them out the window,” said Carney, a self-proclaimed class clown who never really got into trouble but walked the line carefully.

“Even today I love working with tools,” Carney said.

“Title IX has really paved the way for so many people to do what they love,” Carney noted.

High school girls’ hockey has been offered in Connecticut for the past couple of decades. Each year Newtown players join forces not with the boys but with girls from other towns/schools to form co-op teams. Johnson remembers wanting to play hockey and her dad cutting the toe pick off the front of her figure skates to somewhat resemble hockey skates.

Figure skate toe picks certainly have their purposes — for men and women alike and, in some instances, variation between girls’ and boys’ sports is for the better. It used to be that a basketball was a basketball and when Johnson found out the women’s ball circumference was going to be reduced slightly back when she graduated high school, she said, “I was immediately somewhat offended.” Sveda pointed out that the smaller size worked better for girls since they have, generally speaking, smaller hands, Johnson recalled. “It’s much more manageable,” she noted.

Opportunities Abound

It has taken many years for girls and women to get the same opportunities as boys and men.

In the early 1970s, as documented in The Bee, track and soccer teams were referred to as just that — no designation for girls and boys like today, since it was known those sports were offered only for boys.

The September 17, 1976 edition of The Bee includes an article “NHS Girls’ Sports Given A Boost.” This write-up details the Board of Education’s vote to hire assistant coaches for girls’ fall sports: field hockey and volleyball. The article mentions that field hockey coach Joan Penella put in a request for an assistant for three years. A parent spoke up at the meeting and declared, “One person can’t handle 40 girls; I’m sure if it [the assistant coach] were for a boys’ team, it wouldn’t happen.”

In the 1976 article: “Deane LeBeau, another girls’ coach at the school, also defended the need for more coaching assistance, and reminded the Board that it appeared it was in violation of Title IX,” she commented. “If it is proved you are,” she commented, “it could mean you could stand to lose money in federal funds. We are just asking you to provide the same for girls and boys.”

According to the article, Ruby Johnson made a motion that assistant volleyball and field hockey coaches be hired with funds taken from the maintenance account.

Johnson said even in the 1990s girls had to fight for equal field playing space. A new gym as part of a Newtown High renovation was to accommodate both wrestlers and girls’ volleyball players, but the ceiling ended up as being too low for volleyball, so the gym became a dedicated wrestling area,” Johnson said. And a dedicated football team room had been built. “My mother shared with me that an NHS girl who was the daughter of a BOE member had learned of the room’s existence through a boyfriend/friend who played football. The BOE mother investigated and confirmed the team room’s existence. The NHS addition included a boys’ and girls’ dressing room, football team room, and equipment room. To remedy the inequity, the boys kept the football team room and the equipment room was given to the girls. My mother strongly suspected the NHS addition’s gym ceiling height and football team room were not accidents as both situations were somewhat mysteriously discovered post-construction,” she said.

Today, Newtown High has a newer main gym with a high, arc-style ceiling. Girls and boys share a weight room, and wrestlers and cheerleaders share small gym space for practices. The pool is used by girls in the fall and boys in the winter.

Title IX was responsible for establishing a girls’ lacrosse team at the same time as the boys’ team was created, according to an extensive Title IX report by Ruby Johnson in 1998, which also indicated coaching salaries were made equal, and prime Friday night slots for basketball games alternated between boys’ and girls’ teams. “To me, this means in a span of roughly 15 years, Newtown made great strides,” Kelley Johnson said.

According to Ruby Johnson’s soccer report: “In 1998, a Title IX compliance review led to the recognition that both field hockey and girls’ soccer should have regularly scheduled games in the Blue and Gold Stadium. Not only was equal opportunity part of the federal law, but also equal access to coaching and athletic facilities.”

Today, girls’ and boys’ teams both have equal coaching staffs and equal field access at the high school; sports teams — girls and boys alike — continue to raise money for things such as warm-up gear.

Johnson also played basketball and some golf on an unofficial team in high school. She went on to play soccer and softball at Trinity University in San Antonio, where she studied engineering. Johnson is hopeful more girls get interested in and have the opportunity to take advanced math classes at a younger age, and believes there were limitations put on girls in relation to math options when she was in school.

Carney’s daughters played soccer and lacrosse — sports that were not available to her 50 years ago.

Kelley Anne Carney was the recipient of Newtown High School Girls’ Lacrosse Scholarship her senior year in 2009, and Meaghan Carney received the Most Valuable Player award for the soccer team her senior year of 2011, as well as picking up several other accolades in lacrosse.

“When my daughters were about six years old, they were able to take advantage of Newtown youth soccer and lacrosse programs. My daughters’ athletic accomplishments were made possible by their hard work and by the dedication and encouragement of so many adults in Newtown that volunteered as coaches and mentors. Newtown provides excellent youth programs and beautiful fields for all children to learn and excel in the sports they love to play,” Carney said.

“I am very grateful to have raised my children in Newtown these past 25 years. I am also grateful for Title IX and the opportunities and advancements it has given to young women over the past 50 years,” Carney added. “This groundbreaking gender equality law has made a lasting impact by increasing the participation of girls and women in athletics.”

Sports Editor Andy Hutchison can be reached at andyh@thebee.com.

Newtown High School’s inaugural girls’ varsity soccer team, pictured in 1984, went on to win the Western Connecticut Conference championship. Pictured are, from left, front: Laura Oberstadt, Wendy Leitner, Christina Ertl, Kelley Johnson, Beth Schultz, Patty Hensel, and Nancy Watkins; and back: Head Coach Bob Sveda, Kristen Burke, Louise McCullough, Courtney Lehmann, Megan Kearns, Debbie MacDonald, Jennifer Nitray, Kate Stark, Sue Knapp, Shona Curtis, and Assistant Coach Klaus Ertl. Not pictured: Valerie Bassett. —photos courtesy Kelley Johnson
Kelley Johnson got to play soccer at Newtown High School in the 1980s thanks in large part to the efforts of her mom, Ruby Johnson, who pushed for the opportunity for girls to play.
There was no girls’ soccer in Newtown until the 1970s. This is one of the first teams. Kelley Johnson is pictured in the back row, second from left.
Ruby Johnson advocated for girls’ soccer in Newtown and played a significant role in Newtown High’s first team.
Bob Sveda, director of athletics, recognized Ruby Johnson for her efforts.
Meaghan Carney, left, competes in a game during the 2011 season. Carney got to play lacrosse and soccer, sports that were not offered when her mom was in high school in the 1970s. —Bee file photo
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