Betty Wroubel could finally dribble the ball more than three times.
She could cross half court.
She could play both offense and defense.
This game was going to be a whole new experience now that she was playing “Boys Rules Basketball.”
“That was a pretty big deal when we could play by the boys’ rules,” Wroubel said. “The thought usually was ‘We don’t want the girls to get sweaty. We don’t want them to do too much activity. Let them have a little bit of exercise, but not too much.’
“And I don’t think we ever looked for something more. We appreciated what we had and never dreamed beyond what we had. But give people an opportunity and great things can happen.”
Opportunity arose with the stroke of a pen on June 23, 1972, when President Richard Nixon signed into law an educational amendment prohibiting sex discrimination in any program or activity receiving any type of federal financial aid.
Now 50 years later, Title IX is celebrated as an unmatched milestone in female athletics.
“When I tell kids how it was when I played, they can’t believe it,” said Wroubel, the legendary softball and volleyball coach and athletic director at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep. “We’ve come a long way.
“The opportunities girls have now are amazing. I wish they would all see how far we’ve come, appreciate it and take advantage of it.”
Nearly 120,000 girls participate in high school athletics in Michigan, according to the Michigan High School Athletic Association, which sponsors championship tournaments in 15 sports for females. For the most part, they receive funding, uniforms, equipment, coaching salaries and facilities that are equivalent to male athletes – all by federal law and courtesy of Title IX.
But it was a drastically different scenario 50 years ago.
Prior to Congress enacting the Education Amendments of 1972, which granted females “equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities,” severe inequities existed in high school sports – and far beyond.
According to a U.S. Dept. of Justice report, colleges and universities often set quotas for the admission of women, required higher test scores and grades for admission, provided far less scholarships and were sometimes excluded from “male” programs, such as medicine.
It was that inequity that Rep. Patsy Mink had in mind as the lead author of the Education Amendment of 1972, which now bears her name.
“They were looking more at colleges. I don’t think it crossed their minds that it would include athletic teams,” said Meg Seng, athletic director at Ann Arbor Greenhills. “It was a big bill, but it got through pretty easily. After the fact, people started saying ‘Oh boy, what does this mean?’”
The high school sports scene changed overnight as schools across Michigan and throughout the country scrambled to launch a whole new athletic program. Schools had until 1978 – three years after the final version of Title IX was approved – to comply.
The 1970s were fraught with feet-dragging, grumbling and slow-moving concessions from many of the old guard. But girls sports had arrived, and they were here to stay.
“A lot of them felt that anything you gave to the girls was taking away from the boys, and that didn’t go over very well,” said Wroubel. “You heard a lot of ‘That darn Title IX. Everything was fine for so long, I don’t know why they had to change anything.’
“It’s sad that people didn’t realize this makes us all stronger and better. If guys benefit from sports by learning things like leadership, teamwork and working toward a common goal, why wouldn’t you want the same for women? They wanted women to be wives and raise children and be homemakers. They didn’t see any reason girls should be given this opportunity. That part was so disheartening.”
Finally, three-dribble basketball was a thing of the past.
High school sports for girls were fairly non-existent until the late 1960s as school systems – and society as a whole – didn’t see athletics as a need.
“Society saw girls as a having a completely different makeup than boys,” said Fran Danek, the Hall of Fame softball coach at Bay City Central from 1970-2001. “We weren’t supposed to be athletic or be good at throwing a ball or running. It wasn’t a thing girls did.
“I grew up on farm. My younger brother could drive a tractor or mow the lawn. I was expected to go in the kitchen with Mom and do the dishes. And I don’t think we were much different from other families. If you wanted to play sports, they’d tell you to go be a cheerleader. No thanks.”
With no regulations, girls sports offerings varied from school to school. Some offered a handful of mostly informal, intramural opportunities such as synchronized swimming, bowling and gymnastics in the Girls Athletic Association. Some offered nothing. The sports that soar in popularity today – such as volleyball, basketball and softball – were slowed-down, scaled-back versions of what the boys would have played.
Wroubel, a 1971 graduate of Clawson High School, said she played three different versions of basketball during her prep days. One version placed three players on each side of the court and they weren’t allowed to cross the center line or dribble more than three times. One featured a rover, who could cross midcourt and play both offense and defense. The third was “Boys Rules.”
“All those limitations, and I still think it was a valuable experience,” she said. “There are great lessons in everything you do.”
Even after the Title IX passage, girls sports were often relegated as low-priority. Teams received hand-me-down equipment from the boys and played in middle school gymnasiums with no bleachers. Games were scheduled immediately after school with very few fans, and uniforms were often pinnies, at best.
“After three or four years, we finally bought a generic set of plain navy blue uniforms with sweat pants,” said Danek, considered a pioneer of girls sports at Bay City Central. “That was a huge purchase – and they were worn by every team. Some days we’d be scrambling, trying to figure out who needs uniforms. Does the track team need them or can the softball team wear them today?
“There were no numbers and no names, just plain blue – and we thought that was great.”
In the early years, nearly every coach of a female sport was a female teacher. Not until the notion of equal pay entered the lexicon did male coaches begin to venture into female sports.
“Some of the first coaches didn’t know anything about the sport, they just wanted to get someone in the position,” said Jean LaClair, athletic director at Bronson High School. “The thought was ‘They want us to hire a volleyball coach, basketball coach, softball coach and gym teacher. OK, you’re doing all of them.’”
Despite the numerous obstacles, the first interscholastic girls sports teams made it work. The MHSAA sponsored its first statewide championship in 1972 with gymnastics, adding tennis, swimming, golf and track the following year. The first girls basketball state championship was held in 1973-74, with softball coming the next season and volleyball the year after that.
The year prior to the introduction of Title IX, there were about 29,500 girls participating in high school soccer, cross country and volleyball. By 2021, that number was 1.4 million, according to the National Federation of High School Athletics.
Title IX wouldn’t just usher in “Boys Rules Basketball,” it would be a total game-changer.
“Sports is what my life has been geared around,” said LaClair, a volleyball star at Grayling High School who went on to become a state championship coach at Bronson. “I played sports all the time growing up, I played sports in college. I love watching kids in sports, seeing them making good decisions vs. bad decisions… It’s kind of scary to think what I’d be doing without Title IX.”