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Reflections of a North Country Girl At Heart - Interscholastic Sports

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EDITOR’S NOTE:The following is an occasional column contributed by Ogdensburg native Marguerite (Peg) Cordwell Brown about her memories of growing up in St. Lawrence County. Peg, daughter of Vivian and Benjamin Cordwell, worked as a reporter for The Journal while she was a college student in the 1960s, and currently lives in Rhode Island where she is the director of development for Button Hole Golf Course and Learning Center, Providence. She hopes her column will serve as a reminder of a kinder, gentler time in the north country.

Interscholastic sports: There were none—thank God!

As the daughter of a coach who earned multiple varsity letters during his years at Ogdensburg Free Academy and of a mother who played basketball in high school, I would have been under a great deal of pressure to play—something. As it was, I was relieved of that particular stress factor.

Elementary school physical education didn’t present much of a challenge.Under the direction of Carolyn Elliott, who together with her husband Alton “Slim” Elliott, practically ran athletics at all school levels in Ogdensburg for decades, gym class involved mostly dodge ball and square dancing.Mrs. Elliott would transform the gym at the old Madill School into a regular hoedown and, in her full skirt of heavy quilted material with the ever present whistle hanging from a shoe lace around her neck; she would lead us through the do si dos.As I recall, we didn’t have gym uniforms, but because all the girls wore dresses (we really did have school clothes and play clothes in those days), we often pulled corduroy pants on under our skirts for class.

Lest you think Michelle Obama was the first White House resident to get into the promotion of physical fitness, I can tell you that gym class started to change dramatically in the late 1950s.In 1953, a mountain climbing New York University professor warned that children were losing muscle tone because of “the affluent lifestyle of 20th century America.”In response, President Eisenhower (a five-star general and avid golfer), created the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition—which was not very successful.However, President Kennedy got serious about America’s physical fitness challenges, wrote several articles for Sports Illustrated, revitalized the Council, gulp, and developed a fitness curriculum that appeared in our gym classes of the 1960s.

By that time we were in high school and had these beautiful OFA blue one-piece gym uniforms, complete with chrome snaps down the front, winged collars, cap sleeves, short A-line skirts and most attractive bloomers underneath. There was a belt, which we all left off.Miss Long, our ageless and perpetually tanned gym teacher, complete with whistle on the shoe lace, wore a cream colored version of the uniform—however, it was always belted as tightly as the perfect bun she rolled her hair into every day. (I never saw a stray hair!) The fitness test consisted of a softball throw, broad jump, 50-yard dash and, to test our endurance, a 600-yard walk/run. (I walked.) However, the most humiliating activity for me was trying to climb the rope—with a heavy lower body and no coordination; my attempts would have made a classic home video.

We did have intramural sports—and I actually played basketball. Trust me; it was a long way from UConn women’s basketball today. There were six players, three on each side of the court—forwards and guards. You could not cross the center line during play—that definitely limited the physical effort required (again, thank God!) I think there was also a limit on the number of times you could pass the ball. The game began to evolve—slowly. Eventually one girl—a rover—could cross center court—and the number of players on the course shrank to five.

When I graduated from high school, I thought my days in gym class were over. Wrong! I went to a woman’s college which had its own set of requirements. One of the first things that happened as part of orientation was the taking of your posture picture. You were led into a little curtained cube, told to put on this plastic shower cap, disrobe down to your bra and panties, then stand straight for several photos. Imagine how this might play today. My student work-study assignment was as a secretary in the athletic office during my junior year where I had the real pleasure of seeing my posture photo—at what was then 178 pounds, I was just gorgeous!It must have been the shower cap.

As I’ve mentioned, sports have been a very large part of my life. But until I arrived at college, I had never given much thought about what sports could do to enhance life skills. Most of the girls who attended Wilson came from private schools, where field hockey, among other sports, was serious business. The athletes always arrived at school a week before anyone else for training. New students had a built in family before any of us non-athletes had even unpacked. Most of our student government positions were filled by athletes. It was not until much later that I began to recognize that competition, team spirit, camaraderie, and dealing with winning and losing could give you a leg up on coping and succeeding in real life.—Which brings me to the real core of this article—the impact of Title IX.

June 23, 2013, marked the 41st anniversary of the passage of Title IX. Despite Title IX’s much touted impact on high school and college athletic programs, the original text made no direct mention of sports. In fact, Title IX was tacked on to a bill relating to higher education because the Equal Rights Amendment was floundering in congressional committee hearings. The amendment was actually billed as a “first step in the effort to provide women…something that is rightfully theirs—an equal chance to attend the schools of their choice, to develop the skills they want…” by its champion, Senator Birch Bayh (D) of Indiana.

The process of the implementation, challenges, debates and general teeth-mashing that accompanied Title IX over the next 40 years is well documented, and for those who would like to follow its trajectory, there is any number of sources for those interested in following the evolution of its application. Athletics, on the college level, emerged as a flash point largely because of the language in the statute that was focused on eliminating discrimination in higher education on the basis of sex—and that language covered all educational activities, from academic life, to health care, dormitory facilities—and you guessed it, athletics.

Achieving compliance ruffled more than a few largely male feathers. Equality was required on a number of fronts: equality in scholarship assistance, facilities, different abilities and interests, competitive schedules, participation opportunities in proportion to representation in the student body…to name a few. The focus was not on achieving an equal number of teams for both men and women, but on equality of opportunities to participate. Because of the large rosters carried by football teams, this often meant more actual sports teams for women.

The advantages for girls and women extended beyond the fields and floors. Today, women outnumber men in college enrollment and completion; they are gaining in the corporate world and on the political scene. While it would be hyperbole to suggest that these and other positive changes for women are the direct result of Title IX, I personally believe it is the lessons of the locker room that have had a dramatic impact on self-confidence, achievement, career options and life choices for the current generation of girls.

I’d like to close on a very personal note.As you know, my father ended his long and distinguished career as the coach of OFA’s girls’ basketball program.Dad kept everything from his coaching days, and among his papers, I found a letter that had been written to him in 1986 from the parents of one of his basketball players.

“The team was successful in the win-loss column, but the important reason for the existence of sports is the crux of the matter. We feel that you have displayed extraordinary moral integrity, compassion and enthusiasm for the game during the four years our daughter has played under your tutelage.When all games are finished, and students have to move ahead with their lives, lessons learned from the competition (will) be beneficial for the remainder of their existence.”—Lou and Barrie White

Author’s notes:

The statistics are astounding—just a few facts:

Before Title IX one in 27 girls played varsity high school sports. By 2013, 3.2 million girls played high school sports (Women’s Sports Foundation).

Before Title IX, there were virtually no scholarships for women. In 2012 Division I schools were allowed to allocate 15 scholarships for women on their basketball teams. (Other statistics available on other sports from the NCAA).

In 1981-82, when the NCAA began keeping records, men accounted for 72.2 percent of the student-athlete population. In 2011-12, that percentage had dropped to 57 percent.

The 14th Annual Ben Cordwell Memorial Christmas Tournament for Girls will be held on December 20th and 21st at OFA supported in part by the family in tribute to his memory.

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