When Courage Moved the Needle for Illini Women’s Athletics

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 turning point for women’s athletics at the University of Illinois, Title IX historians will argue that a more significant moment occurred. happened three years later when a pair of spunky student-athletes filed a sex discrimination lawsuit.

On April 11, 1977, at Urbana Circuit Court, Nessa Calabrese and Nancy Knop accused the IU Athletic Association of discriminating against women in the operation of its programs. The multi-faceted lawsuit alleged that the Association spent six and a half times more on men’s sports than on women’s teams, gave financial aid to freshmen but barred it to women in their freshman year, and provided a financial aid for men. over a five-year university period, but only four years for women.

There have also been other complaints, according to Calabrese, all based on unequal treatment between female and male athletes.

“Volleyball was my passion,” said Calabrese, Illini’s former two-sport star. “At that time, and I hope also now, to play sports in college you have to be passionate about sports. There were so many sacrifices involved. We were only allowed to practice a few times a week because there were no facilities. the gymnasium we trained in, you could barely keep the ball in play because the ceiling was so low.

“Athletics was kind of the same. You compete in the discus ring on the stadium track, but you’re practicing elsewhere like a field of corn. We were putting up little flags to try to figure out what was 120 feet or what was 150 feet. People were grumbling and complaining and trying to move the needle, but they 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 didn’t have access to the stadium weight room,” Calabrese said. “Weightlifting is an important part of any sport, but certainly athletics. The powers that be in the Athletic Association didn’t even want women training in the stadium because it was for the football and men’s athletics, both in the 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 through the gate or the wall just to train us.

The inequality persisted as to the equipment they were – or rather were not-Published.

“We can talk about something as simple as buying a pair of shoes,” Calabrese continued. “When I started college, I believe the minimum wage was $2.05, and back then a decent pair of shoes was $30 to $40. All the women basically bought their own shoes. Also, there was a very limited number of uniforms. Using me as an illustration with athletics, different events required different types of equipment. There were two discs that I had to train with. They were in rubber, undersized in weight and ridiculously, (missing) big chunks. So it was really hard to throw accurately because aerodynamically they didn’t fly right. I had a javelin with the tip cut off, so you can imagine how it would fly. The only time I’ve been able to use consistent gear at whatever the event was, was in an actual competition.”

1970s female athletics group photo
Prior to the trial, Illinois Athletics only had resources for about 15 uniforms and a travel budget for 12 to 15 women for a sport that fielded 25 to 30 athletes.

Then there was the question of travel for competitions.

“Typically, a track and field team might have 25 to 30 athletes for all the different events, but we could have had 15 uniforms and a travel budget for 12 to 15 women,” Calabrese said. “When we went to a state or Big Ten meet, you ask your discus thrower, ie me— run (one leg) on ​​the 800 meter relay. I was great for about the first 50 yards, but then it’s like—duh– It must be the discus thrower. But athletics is a team sport and you have to win a number of events to win a tournament. The size of our list 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 advantage of being at this 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 towards the discus or javelin competition, they were actually calling my name. So that was the kind of stuff we had to deal with.

The combination of all these inequalities ultimately pushed Calabrese to the brink.

“I was young and quite naive about the law,” she said. “If you’re trying to be an advocate for change and want to do it in a non-offensive and hopefully successful way, you at least initially try to go through the appropriate channels. I believe I exhausted all of those channels over a six to nine month period, including meetings with the female athletic director (Karol Kahrs). It became very clear to me that nothing was going to be done. Some changes would have to be made over a period of years and I would certainly no longer be an athlete at that point in time and therefore would not have legal status.”

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

“This lawsuit would not have been settled without this particular man,” she said. “We had a few conversations and he agreed to take this for women’s sports and men’s minor sports. It took almost two years before it was settled. I was maybe 19 when it started and I really thought there was equal protection, at least under the law as it stood. I came to find that the law is really about money, strategy, being in front of the right judge, having the right lawyer and loopholes. Really, it’s a lot more about gambling than pursuing justice. Shout out to Ed Rawles who helped educate me in the law and who was persistent and tenacious.

“When the Athletic Association exhausted all of its options, we were down to a two-week window where there was a court date,” she said. “The ramifications at the U of I would have been significant and embarrassing for the university – which was neverby the way, my intention – but that’s what it was going to boil down to.”

women's track and field team in the 1970s
The terms of the March 28, 1978 settlement stated that support for qualified female athletes – through payment of room, board, book fees, tuition and tutoring fees – would be handled in the same way as for male athletes.

It was then that the new Chancellor William Gerberding stepped in to arbitrate the dispute.

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

The terms of the March 28, 1978 settlement stated that support for qualified female athletes – through payment of room, board, book fees, tuition and tutoring fees – would be handled in the same way as for male athletes. It also required that men and women have the same grades to be eligible for competition and grants, and it increased financial support for female athlete coaches and for female athlete recruitment expenses.

In addition, Gerberding has agreed that the university will bear some of the additional costs, if any, for a period of two years.

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

“It’s easy afterwards to forget the huge amount of courage involved,” Gerberding said when the settlement was announced. “Nessa and Nancy went ahead with 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 was not just advanced, but fundamentally transformed, and the University of Illinois is indebted to these two women and their attorney.”

So, according to Calabrese, what else needs to change for female athletes in 2022 and beyond?

“Obviously, the accomplishments of women in sport and the ability of women through their notoriety in sport has not only transformed certain sports, but also the world,” she said. “When I observe female athletes today, their level of skill and achievement is incredible and tremendous. Scholarships, especially at a time when higher education is so expensive, have enabled some young women who dreamed of going to school and doing the thing they love. When you see sports participation, it really blows my mind and makes me happy.

“Now, all that being said, what has not changed is that there is still a lot of discrimination, not only in sport but also in employment practices and women’s human rights. What we have seen, very blatantly, is how much discrimination still exists. It’s very discouraging.

“I don’t understand why women don’t champion, support or stand up for other women. The women of this country are a powerful and 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 must be united, respected, strong and courageous. And if you can’t be brave, then contribute in any way you can. If you don’t support yourself, no one else will. It’s taken hundreds of years for women to realize what they have and it can be taken away from you in a very short time if you don’t stand up for the things that are important and just and fair.”

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