The former women’s athletic director has earned a national reputation advocating opportunity for all athletes.
Christine Grant didn’t set out to become a political activist, a civil rights champion, or, at times, the conscience of college athletics. She just wanted to help American girls play sports.
“I’m still surprised when I have to convince people that little girls—and big girls—deserve the same opportunities as their brothers,” says Grant, former director of women’s athletics at The University of Iowa and an emeritus associate professor of health and sport studies. “To some, that’s a novel idea even today.”
Grant has earned a national reputation as a champion of Title IX, the 1972 law that banned gender discrimination in federally funded education programs. She retired in 2000, but hasn’t stopped advocating opportunity for all athletes.
Grant played sports while growing up in Scotland, and by age 12 set her sights on teaching physical education. Field hockey was her passion. “I loved the freedom of being able to go anywhere on a 100-yard by 60-yard pitch,” she says.
She studied at Scotland’s Dunfermline College of Physical Education, taught and coached at the high school level, and then decided to spend a year in Canada. She ended up staying nearly a decade, helping establish a national field hockey association, coaching Canada’s national team, and organizing a national tournament.
In 1969, she came to The University of Iowa to continue her studies and was struck by the dearth of women’s athletic programs in the United States. “I was utterly stunned,” she said. “There was nothing for young women at the intercollegiate level. There were only club sports, which women had to pay for themselves.”
But change was in the air. A resurgent women’s movement and pioneering civil rights legislation had policymakers tackling discrimination in education. Title IX did not specifically mention athletics, but the most contentious fights around it focused on how to foster equity in sports.
The law passed despite lobbying by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which attempted to exempt football and men’s basketball. “Women realized that this was a revolution,” recalls Grant, who was completing her PhD and teaching at Iowa during the early Title IX debates. “But many in men’s athletics seemed to think it was a blip that would go away.”
UI President Sandy Boyd embraced the spirit behind the new law, elevating 12 women’s club sports to intercollegiate varsity status for the 1973-74 academic year and establishing a women’s athletic department. Grant applied to direct the program and, to her surprise, got the job.
“Sandy Boyd was so far ahead of his time. He understood why there was a women’s movement and supported what women were trying to do,” Grant says, also crediting former UI men’s athletic director Bump Elliott for helping to build Iowa’s reputation for equal opportunity.
In 1978, Grant was asked to help draft Title IX implementation guidelines with the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. For nearly a year, she traveled between Iowa City and Washington, D.C., only to see the initial draft scuttled after complaints from collegiate athletic directors. A second draft, arguably more stringent, was adopted in 1979.
In the years that followed, Grant spoke widely on Title IX and continued fighting to see the law enforced. “From my perspective, this is one of the simplest laws ever passed,” she says. “All it’s saying is ‘We will treat our daughters and sons in a similar fashion in our educational institutions.’
Thanks to the urging of Grant and her peers—and more importantly, the example of young women taking up sports—the climate began to thaw. The once recalcitrant NCAA moved into women’s athletics (in 2006, it presented Grant its Gerald R. Ford Award for leadership) and at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Grant saw just how far women’s sports had come.
“I’d been to the Olympics before, but never had trouble getting tickets for women’s events,” Grant says. “I almost didn’t get into the women’s soccer finals, and when I saw 70,000 screaming fans in that stadium, it hit me that we’d made a giant leap.”
As women’s athletics continue to draw interest and support, Grant hopes their pioneering philosophy hasn’t been lost. “Women’s sports came out of the physical education departments with their educational emphasis,” she says. “Our focus was on development of the student-athlete and the belief that all sports are major sports.”
Grant continues fighting for that emphasis today. Her latest cause: Taking on the “arms race” in coaching salaries and facilities, which she fears is mortgaging the future for generations of student-athletes. Meanwhile, she continues teaching and mentoring new leaders who take her message to heart.
“We need people who believe that the purpose of intercollegiate athletics is the development of young people, not just entertaining the fans out there,” she says. “Sport can give so much to young people. It certainly did to me.”
Story by Lin Larson; Photo by Tom Jorgensen
Dec. 10, 2007