This past weekend I had the extreme pleasure and honor of briefly meeting and interacting with Coach VanDerveer, one of college basketball’s most successful coaches of all-time (2 national titles, a handful of Final Four appearances, and over 800 career wins) and a recent inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Quick! Everyone google “Coach VanDerveer” because I’m sure that at this point most people don’t know who this is*. But how could you not have heard of such a successful, prominent college coach, one who has been a fixture at Stanford for over 20 years?!
Well, it’s likely because it’s Coach Tara VanDerveer of the Stanford Women’s Basketball Program. She still has all of those accolades and accomplishments, but not nearly the notoriety that comes along with it for men’s coaches.
In any case, she was invited to IU to receive a Distinguished Alumni Award, which is a very prestigious honor. She graduated as a sociology major, and thus the department wanted to show some support. Since I teach a course on sport, I was invited to help put something together for her. We only had about an hour of her time, but we had a very informal Q&A session that I invited all of my students to attend. Several took advantage, and it turned out to be a really interesting little session.
I told her that these were students and said that she was allowed to talk about anything she wanted – from her experiences as a student, changes she’s noticed, her career, life as a female coach, Title IX, or anything else she might want to address, and please feel free to answer (or not) any questions from the students. She was an interesting and knowledgeable speaker and brought up a lot of interesting points:
- When she went to IU, there were not scholarships for female athletes.
- When she went to IU, there was not a paid women’s basketball coach.
- When she went to IU, tuition was only $3,000 (I believe that included room and board). She worked and paid 1/3, her parents paid 1/3, and she borrowed 1/3.
- There were almost no coaching opportunities for women at this time. She happened into one coaching her cousin’s team (which was awful she said) and was living on food stamps as a grad assistant coach for a while.
- Title IX was not written specifically for women’s sports (it was actually largely to make law school and medical school more available to women – something I always try to emphasize to the kids).
- At her high school graduation, the boy’s basketball coach wrote in her yearbook, “To the best basketball player in the school – male or female,” even though her high school didn’t have a girl’s team (he still knew she could ball!).
- This was her first time back on campus in nearly 40 years, and she could not believe the updates and the quality of the facilities for students and athletes alike.
- Sport is one place where people can learn a great deal about diversity and different cultures. She recounted a story where her team (or her) had never considered making fun of the Illinois mascot (an Indian Chief) dancing as offensive until they had a Native American on the team. She talked about “team Christmases” shifting meaning when they had a Jewish player on the team, and having a Muslim player during the 9/11 attacks.
- She also talked about her father’s concerns about her coaching…He didn’t want her to have to move back home after three months; something that she says motivated her to keep on winning! (It wasn’t that her father thought she couldn’t, only that females weren’t allowed at that time…)
Just past the midway point of her talk, she asked me what sociology had to do with her life. She said that she was pretty sure that she used sociology and that it was important to her, but that she wasn’t quite sure exactly how. At this, I almost laughed because I had to reply that she was obviously
using living sociological ideas and concepts all the time to understand the world in which she was living. Understanding these larger structures and policies and looking to break down gender and cultural norms to see how they affect individuals is the essence of sociology. She may not have been formally theorizing these types of things, but she was certainly using her sociological imagination to understand her own story and that of others in a specific time and context.
These were all extremely interesting tidbits, stories, and advice/lessons. It was obvious that she has been living through a great deal of change and progress and that she has managed to have a great deal of success. But just the fact that you had no idea who I was talking about when I said “Coach VanDerveer” is just one small example that illustrates that we have a ways to go.
*Here, I will admit that I also had to look up Coach VanDerveer. I did not know how successful or prominent she was in the
women’s college coaching world until I received an invitation and was asked to help organize this event. Again, this illustrates our male-dominated sports world, even among those who *allegedly* should be more aware of these inequities (like me, as I study and discuss issues of gender as it relates to sport).