Florence Merdian (class of 1920) was a high-powered woman in athletics at Knox College. Knox’s tennis courts are named after Merdian, and for good reason. She had many important achievements at Knox, including being a varsity letter earner in tennis, winning the interclass tennis championships for four years, being the state singles champion her sophomore year and winning the single and doubles championships of the Little 19 conference her junior year. She also captained the sophomore women’s basketball team before she coached the freshmen women’s basketball team after graduating.
Merdian played hockey, women’s soccer, women’s tennis and women’s basketball at Knox. She was also the editor-in-chief of The Knox Student, president of the women’s K Club, secretary of the Panhellenic Association, a member of Mortar Board and Theta Sigma Phi, the national journalism society.
After Knox, she served as an assistant coach in Knox athletics and served as a writer for the Peoria Journal-Star newspaper from the early 1920s until her retirement. She was then inducted into the Knox Hall of Fame in 1987, being recognized for achievements she accomplished before she was legally even allowed to vote.
With the new presidential administration, Americans can also feel justified in these biases because of our president’s dialogue that disrespects women. This inequality is often seen in college and professional athletics, where men dominate the coaching positions and other important positions in athletic environments.
Statistics from the NCAA website show that, in 1972, “women coached more than 90% of women’s athletics teams. Today, it is less than half.” The same article shows that about 20 percent of NCAA athletic directors are female. In 1979, 58.2 percent of women’s teams in the NCAA were coached by women. In 2006, it was recorded that 42.4 percent of women’s teams were coached by women. In 2014, Theresa Phillips was the first woman to coach a Division I men’s basketball team game that she wasn’t even hired to coach but took the place of the head coach due to his suspension. With this much inequality, it’s no wonder that women feel as if they’re in second place.
Knox’s athletic department has been spread out more than some collegiate programs, being more open to women in higher positions, but continues to be primarily male-dominant. With our first female athletic director, Daniella Irle, now being hired by Knox, we are seeing progress on campus in terms of equality. With 14 head coaches at Knox (two coaching both men’s and women’s simultaneously), only four coaches are women. However, having Irle hired is a step in the right direction.
Assistant Athletic Director and Senior Women’s Administrator Lexie Vernon says inequality in athletic departments today may ironically be a result of the passage of Title IX back in the 1970s.
“So when Title IX was first around in the early 1970’s, women’s and men’s athletic departments were separate. There’s a men’s and women’s athletic director, separate positions,” Vernon said. “So the administrators, coaches and athletes were all women on that side but when Title IX went into effect, during the merging of those athletic departments, the men took the leadership role. So then I think [with] the trickle down of that, men started leading all sports because of that combination.”
Vernon played softball at Lewis University, a small Division II school in the Chicago suburbs. She’s been at Knox for eight years now, beginning as the graduate assistant athletic trainer and moving up from there. Vernon says she hasn’t experienced any inequality herself because of the opportunities she’s been afforded but does acknowledge it exists. Vernon has felt immense support at Knox and is appreciation from the athletics staff and campus as a whole.
“Since I’ve been here at Knox, as a woman, and leading into being an administrator, I’ve had nothing but support by the NCAA and our department. I have coworkers that just lift me up because they want a woman to serve in these roles but there’s women out there that don’t really want to. That’s probably where some of that discrimination lies, or that disconnect,” Vernon said.
However, Vernon does notice the low participation numbers of women in higher positions in other sports programs.
“When you look at the numbers of women working in athletics and overall participation numbers, there’s gotta be something going on. For whatever reason, girls are dropping off in that junior high and early high school range Ñ they’re dropping the participation numbers,” Vernon said. “I’m young enough where I’m in an era that I didn’t know what Title IX was when I was in high school until I was educated on that. I’ve always had opportunities, I’ve always been encouraged to do what I wanted.”
According to a study by the Women’s Sports Foundation, by age 14 girls are “dropping out of sports at two times the rate of boys.” The foundation attributes this drop to lack of access, social stigmas, safety and transport issues and lack of positive role models.
Women coaching women has been something that is important in athletics and Vernon believes it’s “not underrated” but there’s definitely a drop off in women coaching women. When women are coached by men so frequently, women believe this is the norm. According to the NCAA, around 3 percent of men’s teams are coached by women.
As one of our athletic trainers, Shana Sewick makes up one of two women on the hired athletic training staff. As a four year varsity letter winner for Blackburn College women’s soccer, she has experienced being a female in athletics firsthand.
“I think [the inequality is] changing. Women being pioneers and trailblazers, it’s becoming a lot more prevalent. I think the inequality is lowering in that aspect to where there’s more opportunities for women. Obviously there’s a difference between wanting a male candidate versus a female candidate but I think that’s changing for the better because it needs to be somewhat equal, especially if they’re just as qualified and you’re looking at gender,” Sewick said.
The statistics actually show worsening equality patterns. This isn’t necessarily because of lack of opportunity, but a seeming lack of drive to become a high-powered female in athletics. Only 20 percent of athletic directors in the NCAA are women. Even in professional sports, like the WNBA, seven out of 12 coaches are men. When Jenny Boucek was hired to the NBA’s Sacramento Kings last year as an assistant, she became the third ever female coach to be hired full time by the NBA, yet no woman has ever become a head coach.
Men dominate sports. This may be due to a lack of effort or lack of confidence by high-powered and athletic women. This may also be due to social norms and the things we are used to seeing. Whatever the reason, women are needed in sports. Whether there are opportunities elsewhere or more appealing career paths, having representation of women in athletics is an important step in the direction of equality.