Full Court Press: How Pat Summitt, a High School Basketball Player, and a Legal Team Changed the Game

About 25 years ago when coaching my daughter’s 3rd grade basketball team, I unexpectedly was brought to tears when she got a defensive rebound, dribbled down the floor and scored. In other words, she went coast to coast … and with that hustle, she glowed.

That’s why I welcomed the opportunity to review Full Court Press, which tells the story of how Tennessee went from a six-on-six, half-court basketball game for women with rules to “protect us” to the five player full-court game for men.      

Like so many dads who today encourage their sports minded daughters, James Cape, a former 6’6” walk-on basketball player at Michigan, was astounded in 1976 when he learned that in Tennessee, his 15-year-old daughter, Victoria, played a very different basketball game than boys. He was determined to rectify the situation. After writing the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) and getting nowhere, he contacted a local attorney, Dorothy Stulberg, whom he had met through the Oak Ridge League of Women Voters.  

Dorothy Stulberg and her law partner, Ann Mostoller, were two years ahead of me at the University of Tennessee Law School. Both were impressive and smart, super confident and especially friendly and helpful to the small number of new women law students. Both were moms attending law school while living in Oak Ridge.   The book recalls that despite their stellar academic records and achievements, neither received a job offer from any law firm in East Tennessee, a typical scenario for women graduates.  So, in the fall of 1974, they opened their own law firm in their hometown, Mostoller & Stulberg, Tennessee’s first women’s law firm.

When they filed a lawsuit on behalf of Victoria Cape in 1976, Mostoller and Stulberg not only sued the TSSAA, but also the Board of Education of Oak Ridge, the superintendent, the Oak Ridge School athletic director, and Victoria’s head basketball coach.  Imagine the courage and moxy it took for these new “women lawyers” to sue all of these defendants they knew as community leaders and moms.   

The book recounts the colorful career of Judge Robert Taylor, a former basketball player, and his family.  Also told is the role of his law clerk, Charles Huddleston, my law school classmate, who, in addition to excelling as a lawyer, has excelled as an AAU women’s coach for some of basketball’s top players.    

One of the best parts of the book recreates segments of direct and cross examination from Mostoller and TSSAA attorney Charles Hampton White, including Judge Taylor’s questions.  Only a few months after the lawsuit was filed, Judge Taylor issued a ruling rejecting TSSAA’s position that the girls’ rule protected weaker and less capable athletes from harming themselves, including “clumsy and awkward girls,” a reference to TSSAA testimony about girls.  However, on appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed and upheld TSSAA’s classification due to the distinct differences in physical characteristics and capabilities between the sexes.

The book recounts that while the lawsuit was pending, Stulberg also pursued Title IX remedies with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) to change the many inequities facing girl athletes, not only the half-court game. In 1978, HEW ordered a complete revamp of Oak Ridge’s athletic department, and the book recalls the shock waves across the nation. Stulberg is quoted as saying, “It seems such a simple and basic concept that every person is important.”

Still there was no change from the TSSAA.

Throughout the book, the authors weave an important thread about the upbringing, challenges and early success of Trish Head, later known as Coach Pat Head Summitt.   

Full Court Press looks closely at Coach Summitt’s early years, how the game did and did not evolve by the time she took over the Lady Volunteers at age 22 in 1974, and her testimony in Judge Taylor’s court. How Coach Summitt found her voice that brought about the change in the half-court rule in 1979 is definitely worth the read.  The book demonstrates how it took someone like Coach Summitt to change the rule, despite legal and social directives to do so.

Reading the book from start to finish (or coast to coast!) is a joy and fast read.  As a UT alum and as a person who grew up in a culture where girls were overtly limited, I am grateful that Full Court Press tells the story of how, in particular, strong and courageous women stood up and fought for what is right. Full Court Press also reminds us that the fight continues to this day.

A standing ovation at center court to Bill Haltom and Amanda Swanson for sharing and preserving his story of what it took for girls to go coast to coast!

Margaret Behm is a partner with Dodson Parker Behm & Capparella in Nashville.

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