Feuds, Flings, and High School Sports After Title IX
Sports Writer Melissa Isaacson on Her Time at Niles West High
For the returning members of the Niles West girls’ basketball team, the fall of 1976 was brimming with possibilities.
The rest of womankind, however, still had a way to go.
The Supreme Court had just ruled 6–3 in favor of General Electric that it was not gender discrimination for companies to provide insurance that covered some men-only disabilities but not disabilities resulting from pregnancy. The FBI issued a report calling wife battering the country’s least-reported crime, prompting the women’s movement to call for more public attention and more police effort in response. In more positive news, Barbara Walters became the first woman to co-anchor a network evening news show for an unprecedented $1 million annual salary, though it should be noted that Harry Reasoner, her partner on ABC World News Tonight, made no secret of his hostility.
At the US Open, Chris Evert won the women’s singles title, but it was Evert’s role as men’s champion Jimmy Connors’s girlfriend that drew more attention to Evert than her gritty determination or blistering forehand. And the real news of the tournament was transgender Renée Richards, who was barred from competing in the women’s draw after she refused to take a chromosome test.
It seemed we were all a little misunderstood.
For the 15th straight year of my life, I wore my hair short. And for probably the 12th straight year, I was often mistaken for a boy. Easing the pain somewhat was that this observation usually came from those over the age of 60 who also thought that any boy with hair below his ears was a girl.
Until one sweltering September morning early sophomore year, this had been a relatively private problem of mine. I had just finished playing tennis in Mrs. Mulder’s PE class that morning and was standing in the cafeteria line when a wave of dizziness hit me. I was either going to throw up or pass out, I wasn’t sure which. But I determined that either way, the cafeteria was not the place to do it. Rushing out of the lunch line and dashing through the heavily populated student lounge, I felt the strange sensation of the floor rising up and hitting me in the face.
So, this was what fainting felt like.
Almost immediately, I felt someone shaking me. I also heard the words that made me wish I had never regained consciousness. “Son, son, get up!” shouted Mr. Beeftink, one of the science teachers.
My reaction, at least in my own head, still facedown on the linoleum, was instantaneous. OK, I decided, transferring high schools might be a little extreme, so I will simply never walk through this particular hallway or go near the student lounge again for the next three years. I could do that. And anyway, maybe I was the only one who even heard Mr. Beeftink call me “son,” which was considerably more embarrassing than the actual fainting.
I had just about convinced myself of this after blocking out the wheelchair ride to the nurse’s office when a so-called good friend of mine, a junior whose sense of humor leaned toward Don Rickles, burst through the door to inform me that actually, “the entire school” had heard.
“And they’re still laughing,” she added, in case I wasn’t traumatized enough.
How many days until basketball season?
The image problem was worse for some of us than others. People tended to view girl athletes as boyish, something many girls found frightening and some boys, frankly, found intimidating. For me, though painfully self-conscious, I was not inclined to change my ways. I liked boys, but unless I was playing catch or making jokes with them in the back of class, they pretty much terrified me, and I found basketball much more interesting than the prospect of attracting a boyfriend anyway.
Like seemingly everything else she did, Connie’s social life came easily. She had dated an adorable blond-haired, blue-eyed boy named Bob Porcaro in seventh and eighth grades, and though they weren’t officially boyfriend and girlfriend, they remained good friends, and anyone could tell Bob still liked her.
For Diane Defrancesco, the prospect of juggling basketball with the rest of her life her freshman year at Niles West was considerably more difficult. Her reputation as an athlete preceded her thanks to her older sister Charmaine, who had graduated two years earlier.
Char was a phenomenal athlete, very possibly the best female athlete Niles West had ever had up to that point, though it was hard to judge. During her freshman year at West, the only girls’ sport was called aquasprites, a hybrid of swimming and water ballet. Char, a great swimmer, was not thrilled, but she went out for it anyway. Over the course of the next four years, every time the school would add a girls’ sport, Char would try out and star in it—volleyball, swimming, badminton, tennis, softball, and finally basketball for the ’75 inaugural team. After graduating from high school, Char received a $600 tuition waiver to play basketball for Northern Illinois University and once there, was recruited to play field hockey, where the first game she ever saw was also the first one she ever played in.
But as talented an athlete as Char was, DD was thought to be even better, more naturally gifted. The only girl to play Little League baseball in Skokie when she was 11, DD once picked up a softball in gym class and casually heaved it 250 feet without so much as a warm-up toss.
Although she barely avoided being expelled from basketball camp, DD wasn’t a bad kid. She had a huge heart, was friendly and funny, and was never outright disrespectful to adults. We figured she was just a free spirit, the kind of kid who did things you wish you had the courage to do. DD only wished she had the stability that most of us apparently had.
Just as DD was starting high school, her mother was finally getting help for a drinking problem, and with both parents focused on her recovery, their youngest daughter was left to pretty much fend for herself. She had also begun experimenting with alcohol and pot and found she liked both. The only thing that could compete was sports. What she could not accept was the leap some kids made to equate sports with being boyish, especially when boyish meant something else altogether.
One day DD told us she had received a letter from another girl in school professing her love for her, and she was horrified. At 5’6″, strong, and, like most of us, with a body viewed as built more for sports than for dresses, DD whispered to her friends, “I don’t want people to think I’m some dykey girl.” And from then on, she made a special effort at parties to flirt with the boys, before attracting the attention of Connie’s twin brother, Chris.
The topic of woman athletes and homosexuality was one that came up every now and then, and there was little differentiation made between sexuality and femininity. The fact that if you looked or acted too much like a guy, you might very well either be mistaken for a lesbian or actually be one was something we all generally acknowledged.
Mrs. Mulder was sympathetic to our anxieties over our self-image. “You are always young ladies, and I never want you to give up your femininity,” she told us as we blushed and whispered sarcastic comments to each other. “But on the court, you are also athletes.”
Our coach was looking toward basketball season as much as we were. She had attended some coaching clinics over the summer, and her friendship with Mr. Schnurr was a solid one now. They were pals and co-conspirators in their plan to make us better basketball players.
The climate among much of the Niles West staff, however, was a tense one. There was serious talk of an impending strike over the perceived delay in the renewal of a new teachers’ contract, and the staff was picking sides. But Arlene Mulder and Billy Schnurr didn’t talk politics; they talked basketball. And tennis.
Both were avid players, and after discovering one morning that neither had a homeroom class to monitor that fall, they met on the tennis court and hit for the 10 minutes before each had to teach an outdoor gym class. This arrangement worked beautifully for three days until another teacher spotted them through a window and reported it to the principal, and they were told to stop. Now they were partners in crime as well.
Of course, there were more serious issues at hand. The teachers voted to strike, and it seemed all of Mrs. Mulder’s friends and colleagues were ardent union supporters, taking to the picket line without hesitation. For Mrs. Mulder, however, there was a decision to make.
With the state tennis tournament about to begin and her talented sophomore Holly Bland one of the favorites to compete for the state singles title, Mrs. Mulder learned that Holly would have to forfeit her matches if she was not represented by her coach. Mrs. Mulder’s decision was now clear. But in her first attempt to cross the picket line, she was horrified as many of the same people she thought were her closest friends harassed and taunted her with chants of “Scab!”
“Arlene, you’re not going to go in there,” said John Armour, a Niles West coach and the husband of Jean Armour, her good friend and fellow PE teacher and coach.
Mrs. Mulder hurried to her car, dissolving into tears. After driving home, she called Bud Trapp, our athletic director, and asked for his advice. “Arlene, come to school tomorrow morning at five and I’ll give you a set of keys to the building,” Trapp told her, appreciating her dilemma.
It was a decent enough plan. Before dawn each morning of the strike, Mrs. Mulder sneaked into the building before picketers arrived and avoided catching any serious abuse. But all around her, chaos reigned. In a bitterly contentious school board meeting, the teachers who remained on strike despite threats from the board—about half the staff—were fired. And the great majority of the student body, in a scene reminiscent of the 60s, marched outside, boycotting classes in a protest of our own.
Striking teachers taught their classes under trees in front of the school while Dr. Mannos took to a bullhorn, ordering students inside. It was all very exciting to a generation of kids who were too young to have had any real influence in the 60s, and we told ourselves that this was important and that we weren’t just having fun cutting class.
Within a few days, however, it was a moot point as the teachers were rehired, students returned to classes, and the contract dispute was temporarily delayed.
Holly competed in the state tennis tournament, where she did not place but gained valuable experience. And Mrs. Mulder lost friendships she wondered if she would ever fully regain.
Reprinted with permission from State: A Team, a Triumph, a Transformation by Melissa Isaacson, August 2019, Midway Books.