When Courage Moved the Needle for Illini Women’s Athletics | #students | #parents

By Mike Pearson

Nessa Calabrese (Top) and Nancy Knop

While the addition of seven varsity-level sports in the Spring of 1974 was undoubtedly a milestone moment for women’s athletics at the University of Illinois, Title IX historians will argue that a more significant moment occurred three years later when a pair of courageous student-athletes filed a lawsuit charging sexual discrimination.

On April 11, 1977, at Circuit Court in Urbana, Nessa Calabrese and Nancy Knop charged UI’s Athletic Association with discrimination against women in the operation of its programs. The multi-faceted suit contended that the Association spent six-and-a-half times as much for men’s sports as for women’s teams, awarded financial aid to male freshmen but prohibited it for women in their first year, and provided financial aid for men over a five-year academic period but for only four years for women.

There were additional complaints as well, according to Calabrese, all based on unequal treatment between women and men’s athletes.

“Volleyball was my passion,” said Calabrese, the former Illini two-sport star. “In those days, and I hope now, too, to play sports in college you have to be passionate about sports. There was so much sacrifice involved. We were only allowed to practice a few times a week because there were no facilities. At the gym in which we were practicing, you could barely keep the ball in play because the ceiling was so low.

“Track and field was kind of the same way. You’re competing in the discus ring at the track in the stadium, but you’re practicing somewhere else like a corn field. We were setting up little flags trying to figure out what’s 120 feet or what’s 150 feet. People grumbled and complained and tried to move the needle but were basically unable to do so. So, regarding access to facilities, it was even worse.”

It was much the same in the weight room.

“Women did not have access to the weight room at the stadium,” Calabrese said. “Weightlifting is a big part of any sport, but certainly track and field. The powers that be with the Athletic Association didn’t even want women training in the stadium because that was for football and men’s track and field, both Fall and Spring. On more than one occasion, when we were using the stadium, we were locked inside. Sometimes we had to scramble to get over the gate or the wall just to practice.”

Inequality continued in terms of the equipment they were—or rather were not—issued.

“We can talk about something as simple as buying a pair of shoes,” Calabrese continued. “When I started college, I believe that minimum wage was $2.05, and in those days a decent pair of shoes cost $30 to $40. All of the women basically bought their own shoes. Also, there were a very limited number of uniforms. In using myself as an illustration with track and field, different events required different types of equipment. There were two discus that I had to practice with. They were rubber, undersized in weight, and laughably, (missing) big chunks. So it was really difficult to throw with any degree of accuracy because, aerodynamically, they didn’t fly right. I had one javelin with the point cut off it, so you can imagine how that would fly. The only time I could use equipment that conformed with whatever the event was, was in an actual competition.”

1970s women's track group photo
Prior to the lawsuit, Illinois track & field only had resources for approximately 15 uniforms and a travel budget for 12-to-15 women for a sport that fielded 25-to-30 athletes.

Then there was the issue of traveling to competitions.

“Typically, a track and field team might have 25-to-30 athletes for all the different events, but we might have had 15 uniforms and a travel budget for 12-to-15 women,” Calabrese said. “When we went to a state or Big Ten competition, you’re asking your discus thrower—i.e. me—to run (a leg) on the 800-meter relay. I was great for about the first 50 yards, but then it’s like—duh—that must be the discus thrower. But track and field is a team sport and you have to win a certain number of events to win a tournament. The size of our roster all had to do with money.

“I qualified for the national championship—I believe it was in Texas,” she continued. “We weren’t allowed to leave two or three days early so we could have the benefit of being at that school’s facilities to practice. (Instead) we left the night before and drove all night. I literally got out of the van and as I was running toward either the discus or javelin competition, they were actually calling my name. So, this was the type of stuff that we had to contend with.”

The combination of all these inequities ultimately pushed Calabrese over the brink.

“I was young and fairly naïve about the law,” she said. “If you’re trying to be an advocate for change and you want to do so in an unoffensive and hopefully successful manner, you at least initially try to go through the proper channels. I believe I exhausted all of those channels over a period of six-to-nine months, including meetings with the women’s athletic director (Karol Kahrs). It became very clear to me that nothing was going to be done. Certain changes would have to be done over a period of years and certainly I no longer would be an athlete at that particular point in time and thus would not have legal standing.”

After exhausting those channels, Calabrese arranged a meeting with attorney Ed Rawles.

“This suit would not have been settled if not for this particular man,” she said. “We had a couple of conversations and he agreed to take this on for women’s sports and men’s minor sports. It took close to two years before it was settled. I was maybe 19 when this started and I really thought that there was equal protection, at least under the law as the law existed. I came to find out that the law is really a lot about money, strategy, being in front of the right judge, having the right attorney, and loopholes. Really, it’s much more of a game than a pursuit of justice. Shout out to Ed Rawles who helped to educate me in the law and who was persistent and tenacious.

“When the Athletic Association had exhausted all of its options, we were down to a two-week window where there was a court date,” she said. “The ramifications to the U of I would have been significant and an embarrassment to the university—which was never, by the way, my intention—but that’s what it was going to come down to.”

women's' track team in 1970s
Terms of the March 28, 1978, settlement stipulated that the support for qualified women’s athletes—by payment of room, board, book expenses, tuition and fees, and tutoring—would be handled in a similar fashion as it was done for male athletes.

That’s when newly appointed Chancellor William Gerberding stepped in to arbitrate the dispute.

“He was someone who had more stature and control than the men’s A.D. (Cecil Coleman),” Calabrese said. “(Gerberding) met with me and I think he was really flabbergasted as to what was going on and how long it had been going on and what the potential financial ramifications as well as the reputation of the university would be. He intervened and told Cecil Coleman and Karol Kahrs in no uncertain terms that there would be negotiations and a settlement, and this would not go to court. In one or two days of negotiations, it was settled.”

Terms of the March 28, 1978, settlement stipulated that the support for qualified women’s athletes—by payment of room, board, book expenses, tuition and fees, and tutoring—would be handled in a similar fashion as it was done for male athletes. It also required the same grades for men and women to be eligible for competition and for grants-in-aid, and it increased financial support for coaches of women athletes and for the expense of recruiting women athletes.

Furthermore, Gerberding committed that the university would underwrite some of the possible additional costs for a two-year period.

Daily Illini coverage of lawsuit settlement from 1978
Daily Illini coverage of the lawsuit settlement

“It is easy in the afterglow to overlook the enormous amount of courage involved,” Gerberding said when the settlement was announced. “Nessa and Nancy pursued this act in the face of an indifferent and hostile environment and against the advice of many who agreed with their ideas. It was a creative moment. The position of women wasn’t merely moved ahead, but fundamentally transformed, and the University of Illinois is indebted to these two women and their attorney.”

So, in Calabrese’s opinion, what still needs to change for women’s athletes in 2022 and beyond?

“Clearly, women’s accomplishments in sports and women’s ability through their notoriety in sport has not only transformed certain sports, but also the world,” she said. “When I watch women’s athletes today, their level of skill and accomplishment is amazing and tremendous. Scholarships, particularly in this day and age when higher education is so terribly expensive, have enabled certain young women with a dream to get an education and do the thing that they love. When you see the sport participation, it really blows me away and makes me happy.

“Now, all of that being said, what has not changed is that there is still a tremendous amount of discrimination, not just in sport but also in hiring practices and women’s basic rights. What we’ve seen, in a very glaring way, is the extent to which discrimination still exists. It’s very disheartening.

“I do not understand why women do not advocate for or support or champion for other women. Women in this country are a strong, formidable force. They have the power to move mountains and so many women have moved mountains individually. But if you want to orchestrate real change, you need to be united, be respected, be strong, and be courageous. And if you can’t be courageous, then contribute in any way that you can. If you don’t support each other, no one else will. It took hundreds of years for women to achieve what they have and it can be taken away from you in a very short period of time you don’t fight for the things that are important and fair and just.”

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