Wow! Where has the time gone? Thinking about celebrating 31 years of National Girls & Women in Sports Day (NGWSD) brings back so many memories. I have very fond ones of starting the very first NGWSD. Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) President Carol Mann led a group of champion athletes and organizational leaders to meet President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office; Martina Navratilova won the first Flo Hyman Award; and many of us walked the halls on Capitol Hill, meeting with members of Congress, sharing stories and talking about the importance of women’s sports, gender equity and keeping Title IX strong.
The original name for the Day was National Women’s Sports Day organized and sponsored by the WSF, National Association of Girls and Women in Sports, YWCA, Girls Inc. and National Women’s Law Center. By the second year, the name was changed to reflect the importance of officially including girls.
Back in the Day, it was possible to get national days officially acknowledged if you were able to get a majority of Congressional members to sign onto a House and Senate Resolution. It took months and months and hundreds of us calling Congressional members from every state to get the requisite number to sign, but we did it. February 4, 1987 became the official National Day for NGWSD. This was a very big deal and added to the credibility and importance of the day.
It was pretty special because we were able to get support and co-sponsors from both the Democrats and Republicans. That’s not something that happens very often today. Senators Ted Stevens, Bob Packwood, Barbara Mikulski, Bill Bradley, Ted Kennedy and then U.S. Representatives Olympia Snowe, Barbara Boxer and others were strong supporters and continued their support throughout their tenure in Congress. Senator Bradley surprised and thrilled us our very first year by presenting a U.S. flag that flew over the Capitol, a tradition we have resurrected the past two years, thanks to Senator Nita Lowey.
When we started NGWSD, the WSF also created the Flo Hyman Award as a way to remember Olympic volleyball player Flo Hyman, a strong advocate for women’s equality in sports who had recently died from Marfan’s Syndrome. It was fitting for Martina Navratilova to receive the award that first year as Martina epitomized Flo’s athletic accomplishments, humanitarian spirit and commitment to equality. Subsequently, many other greats, such as Billie Jean King, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Diana Golden, Chris Evert, Mary Lou Retton, Donna de Varona, Kristi Yamaguchi and more have since been honored.
I’ll never forget that first year with Martina. We conducted our Hill visits in groups and I was with Martina, Judy Nelson and Anita DeFrantz. At that time, not many athletes went to Capitol Hill. They were honored and respectful of being in the heart of the U.S. government and showed their respect by dressing up for the occasion. Martina wore a gorgeous suit, high heels and a mink coat (it was February, remember). The floors are marble so heels make a loud statement and we walked a lot. I admired her stamina. But, even more astonishing was that as we passed hearing rooms, Senators and Representatives would stop their hearings – literally adjourn them – just to have the opportunity to meet Martina. I can still picture Senator Strom Thurmond fawning all over her! Never underestimate the power of the athlete.
Similar to what we do today, we made Hill visits, conducted press conferences and occasionally hosted lunches and athletic events in the early years of NGWSD. I still laugh thinking about how one year I saw Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) walking down the hall toward the room where we were holding our press conference. I approached him, maybe cornered him a bit, and brought him into our briefing. He was not considered a supporter so it was a surprise when people saw him, but his friend Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) saw him and urged Senator Hatch to join us and speak on behalf of the Day – and he did! It was quite a coup.
Over the years we’ve brought athletes and organization representatives into the Oval Office to meet with the President and sometimes First Lady, starting with Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama. Our meeting with President George H.W. Bush in 1989 was a lot of fun. He had just been elected, and we were the first event of his term.
When we visited with President Reagan we learned that there was a formal protocol we were to follow. First, a White House official would put us in a line outside the Oval Office and at the appointed time we would go into the Oval Office where we stood in the same line order waiting for the President to enter. Taped x’s were affixed to the carpet to make sure we stood in our appropriate places. After the President entered, each person would be introduced. We were told we could say hello but were instructed not to initiate a conversation with the President unless he said something to us first. As we met the President, we had the official handshake and photo taken. After each person had gone through the line, the President would make remarks and we would leave.
But, our visit with President H.W. Bush was very different. We walked into the Oval Office to see only the President and his dog Millie. Fortunately, I knew the drill and lined everyone up, and we all went through the line. At one point, First Lady Barbara Bush came in looking for Millie and stayed. It was very casual. Many of the athletes went through the line more than once. They wanted more time with him! It was so fun. There was lots of joking and casual conversation with the President and First Lady. WSF President Carol Mann asked the President if he’d play golf with her. He was quick to respond, “Hell no!” She asked why and he said, “Because you’d beat me.” Ha ha.
Some years we would organize sporting events, such as walks or games. One year Congress challenged elite basketball players to a game. They were sure they would win, especially because they had a ringer in Congressman Tom McMillen who had been an Olympic and professional player. Want to guess who won? Another year, while playing racket ball, Senator John Warner got hit on the lip and was bleeding. He proudly wore that incident as a badge of honor and was called “the Lip” during the briefing the next day.
Now, 31 years later I am struck when I read articles describing how many organizations and universities have been hosting NGWSD events for 20 years and more. This year alone we know of over 300 events so far and over 300,000 people directly participating, and we know many more will take place throughout the year across the United States.
I take great pride in continuing this special day. By bringing girls’ and women’s sports to the forefront – to our nation’s leaders and to the many schools, competitions and other events around the country – we are giving hundreds of thousands of people opportunities to reflect on the impact sports has on all of us and the responsibility to give all girls the opportunity to participate.