KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Title IX has turned fifty years old. The federal civil rights law which prohibits sex-based discrimination was signed into law in 1972 by President Richard Nixon. It took a while to effect change, though.
A 1976 lawsuit here in East Tennessee helped open the door for women here to play basketball by the same rules as men. A 14-year-old girl bravely took on the TSSAA so she could play full-court basketball at Oak Ridge High School.
Her star witness? A young Pat Summitt just starting what would become a legendary coaching career.
In 1976, Victoria Cape was a guard on Oak Ridge High School’s girls’ basketball team, just wanting to play full-court basketball. She claimed being deprived of the opportunity to play the traditional game and to shoot the ball which under girls’ rules was confined to forwards only, wasn’t fair and put girls wanting to further their basketball careers in college at a disadvantage for scholarships.
“I was only 14. A lot of things I couldn’t do but I saw the vision, it was easy to see the evolution of where women should be and why we were neglected. All those years of not being given the right, equal treatment,” said Cape.
WATE followed the case from the beginning. In a story that aired in 1978, reporter Paula Campbell stated, “Mrs. Dorothy Stulberg, a lawyer and one of the citizens who initiated the investigation by HEW says the main concern was to try to make the school system realize that the girls are equal to the boys and that they’re not second-class citizens.”
Attorney Dorothy Stulberg told WATE at the time, “the primary concern is that we believe that girls are equally as important as boys and we found in this area of athletics, that that was not the attitude towards girls, that boys, boys athletics, varsity athletics are supported financially, staff wise, community-wise, administration wise, whereas the girls had to fight for almost anything they got.”
Who was called as an expert witness testifying on behalf of Victoria? None other than Pat Summitt, then in her 20s, only into her second year as head coach of the UT Women’s Basketball program.
“She’s a very young coach,” said journalist Maria Cornelius, ‘and suddenly she becomes a star witness in a case, and it goes back to Pat saying, ‘ you always must do the right thing.’ To say she put her neck on the line is an understatement.”
Cornelius knew Pat Summitt well and wrote the book “The Final Season” on Summitt’s perseverance on and off the court. “That is probably one of Pat’s biggest influences in terms of the early effect of Title IX.”
As Cape recalls,” she was subpoenaed, she did a great job, she was a great witness.”
Cape won the lawsuit against the TSSAA.
As attorney Stulberg said back then, “what this document means is that all school systems better take note.”
WATE’s Paula Campbell closed the report by saying, “so the fight for equality continues and what happened here at Oak Ridge might set a precedent for the entire state of Tennessee.”
That victory did change the game of basketball for women in Tennessee, not just on the court.
Cape said, “that’s probably the biggest thing this lawsuit. It woke up everybody. ‘Oh, women’s rights! Oh, why do we only get the canvas shoes and the boys get the leather shoes? They get the big gym, we get the little gym. We have to drive to our games and they’re flying to their games.’ A lot of things that were said and [it was] just a big snowball effect. It kind of put a spotlight on Title IX and what it means and how can we work to make things right for women.”
What makes Cape’s court case all the more remarkable: she says she wasn’t a star basketball player and did not go on to play in college. At 14, she had a dream and wanted the chance to fulfill it. Her case helped other girls do just that.