The Woman Who Empowered a Princess

On Saturday evening, Sept.1, I will be at the Mike Rose Sports Complex in Collierville, Tenn. There I will see a sight that makes me very happy. I will see a Princess running.

The Princess will not be running alone. She will be running with hundreds of other young women from across Tennessee and the southeast, as they compete in the Twilight Cross Country meet.

The Princess is my 17-year-old daughter. And she is not only a Princess, she is an athlete.

For the past 17 years, the Princess has competed in many sporting events, and I’ve been present for all of them.

I’ve watched the Princess chase a soccer ball down the field.

I’ve watched her do the butterfly stroke in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

I’ve watched her dive for a basketball on a hardwood floor and come up not only with the ball, but with wood burns on her knees.

I’ve watched her stand anxiously on a track, looking back over her shoulder as she waits for a teammate to hand her a baton. And then I’ve watched the Princess sail around the track, experiencing, in the words of Kipling, an unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run.

She hasn’t always won, but she’s poured her heart into the effort, just as she will do at her upcoming meet and at all her meets this season. And as a father, that makes me very happy.

I would like to take credit for this. After all, when she was in middle school, I was her cross-country coach. But the truth is I did not make my Princess an athlete. There are two people who made this happen. The first is, of course, my daughter. And the second is a wonderful woman named Pat Summitt.

The Princess has never met Pat Summitt, but she knows her. The Princess has sat with me at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville and watched Pat as she coached the Lady Vols. The Princess has grown up watching Coach Summitt on ESPN and respects and reveres her. But the Princess doesn’t realize something I believe is true. The Princess — and hundreds of other girls from across the Volunteer State — would probably not have spent much time competing in soccer and basketball and swim meets and track meets were it not for Pat Summitt.

Nearly 40 years ago, on June 23, 1972, Congress passed Title IX, an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title IX was simple and to the point:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Very few people realized at the time how this one simple statement of law would change the lives of millions of American women. It literally opened the doors of sports arenas so that young women could enter not just as cheerleaders or band members or fans, but as athletes.

But in 1972, Title IX was merely words on a piece of paper. Somebody had to make this new law, in the words of Atticus Finch, a living, breathing reality.

And that someone was Pat Summitt.

In 1974, two years after the enactment of Title IX, 22-year-old Pat Summitt became the women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee. Very few sports fans paid attention. Girls playing basketball? Who cared?

Pat did. Born in Clarksville, Tenn., Pat’s family moved to the metropolis of Henrietta, Tenn., when Pat was in high school. They moved for one simple reason. Cheatham County High School had a girls’ basketball team. Clarksville High did not. And Pat wanted to play basketball. She played at Cheatham County and then at the University of Tennessee at Martin where she became an All American, and then played for the U.S. Olympic team.

And then she moved to Knoxville and began to coach a basketball team, even though women’s college basketball was not at the time an NCAA-sanctioned sport.

Over the next 38 years, she won more than 1,000 games, eight national championships, coached a U.S. Women’s team to an Olympic gold medal, and had a graduation rate of 100 percent. You read that right. Every athlete that played for her for four years has a degree from the University of Tennessee.

But Pat did more than that. She literally changed the culture of American sports, giving every young woman in America the chance to compete. Simply put, she put women’s sports on the map.

My Princess was born in 1995, 23 years after the enactment of Title IX, and 21 years after Pat started coaching basketball. Sports has been and is a major part of the Princess’s life. She enjoys it as a spectator. For her, March Madness is the NCAA Women’s Basketball tournament. But the Princess doesn’t just watch. Five days a week, she puts on her singlet, running shorts and running shoes and trains with her teammates on the White Station High School Girls Cross Country Team. And then, as she will on Sept. 1, she lines up, anxiously waits for the starting gun to fire, and then she runs.

On some evening next winter, the Princess and I will be at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville to watch the Lady Vols play basketball under new Coach Holly Warlick. While we are there, we are going to search the crowd for the legendary Coach Emeritus, Pat Summitt. She will no doubt be surrounded by her adoring fans, and we may not get to meet her.

But I hope the Princess and I get the opportunity to shake her hand. And if we do, I’m going to say, “Thank you, Coach. Thank you for empowering my Princess to become an athlete.”


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.