Donna Lopiano

“Without the new generation of young people who feel strongly about making sure everybody has equal rights in every facet of life, life would be dull and very depressing.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, April 2022

JW:  Donna, please give us your full name and where and when you were born.

DL:  Donna Lopiano and I was born in 1946 in Stamford, Connecticut.

JW:  We’d like to know a little about your childhood. What kinds of things do you remember that made you into the person you are today?

DL:  I grew up on a street with 14 boys and one other girl. I didn’t know I was a girl until I tried out for the local Little League baseball team, where I was drafted number one, and then was told by a very large father who held a Little League rulebook that no girls are allowed. I’m sure that shaped the rest of my life.

JW:  How old were you then?

DL:  I was 10 or 11.

JW: Tell us a little about your family.

DL:  My parents had never graduated high school. They were children of the Depression. They were first-generation Italian-Americans. Their parents were born in Italy. They became very successful business persons. They owned their own restaurant, put all their kids through college. The only rule we had growing up is “you will get good grades and you will go to college, and you will not go into the restaurant business because it’s too hard.”

JW:  When did you officially get involved in the Women’s Movement?

DL:  It’s an interesting question. I got involved in the Women’s Movement through sport, looking for an opportunity to play. I didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect, it shaped the rest of my life in the sense that I knew how important sport was. I knew what that made me in terms of confidence and self-esteem and all of the gifts that we give to children before they can develop their intellectual capacities.

They learn about themselves through physical activity, and testing their competence in things that don’t necessarily involve school. It’s playing with other kids every day. It’s where you develop your commitment to diversity and fairness and generosity and working well with others. That’s so clear as you look back on those childhood experiences and how important they are. For girls to be denied that or told you’re limited to practicing to be a mom and playing with dolls…

It continues to concern me that so many girls are still receiving hundreds of thousands of messages through the media that really are telling them they have to conform to a body image they will never achieve. That they will have to buy all this makeup to put on themselves so that they can compete for men. Those aren’t the messages that women should be restricted to. I’ve been a feminist from way back.

JW:  When did you get actively involved in getting girls into sports?

DL:  My parents found me a team to play on. It wasn’t a boys Little League baseball team, but it was a National Championship women’s softball team sponsored by a corporation in Stratford, Connecticut, 30 miles down the road. At the time, if you were a young woman, you had to be of working age to get the opportunity to play sport because sport in school was little or nothing. Sport outside of school benefited from World War II, actually, where so many women worked in corporations and corporations started the recreation movement in the United States and teams were started for women, softball teams.

This team that I got a chance to play on when I was of age, which was 16, is how I learned to influence girls because they were there every night. There were 5,000 or 6,000 people that came to every game of the Raybestos Brakettes, a very unique and legendary women’s softball team in Stratford, Connecticut. We existed in a time and a place where in a relatively small community there were no competing sport entertainment things like professional men’s sports or Minor League teams.

Every day, girls come up to you and ask for an autograph and you learn quickly even though I was only 16 years old, that the secret sauce, the message, that all you had to do to capture them in sport was the same thing that we’ve done for boys forever. That is simply to say “you’d be really good at this; you should play sports or you better play sports.” Every tall boy in high school is confiscated by a football coach and told, “You will be at practice at three o’clock.” It’s that support that was missing for girls because there were no role models for them.

I was fortunate enough to be one at an early age. All the older women that I played with, they were all older women, were my role models who were coaches and physical education teachers and administrators of sport programs that were involved. They became involved as you got into the 70s in the feminist movement and working for Title IX and equal opportunities for women in sport. But it was a very long journey and one that you didn’t recognize as you were going through it.

JW:  You did get involved in working for Title IX, is that right?

DL:  Absolutely. People don’t realize that Title IX was never about sports. We think it is because that’s all people say. But it was about our mothers who never had the chance to become doctors and lawyers and engineers because graduate school was closed to them. There were quotas on the admission of women. The quota was broken only if your daddy had enough money to build a building and said, “I want my daughter to be in the engineering school.”

Title IX was about making sure that training for the highest paid positions was as available to women as it was to men. It was only by accident, two years after Title IX passed in 1972, that the National Collegiate Athletic Association lawyers in Washington, DC asked the Department of Education, “Hey, does this law apply to extracurricular activities like football?” They were horrified when the answer was yes. The headlines across the country when that answer came out were made by the voices of Darrell Royal, the President of the American Football Coaches Association, who said, “Title IX and women’s athletics are going to be the death of big-time football and scare the heck out of all of the fans.”

In 1974, I was a young professional and the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women was only a year old. I was an Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and went to the first convention, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women convention, and said to the President, “Put me to work.” I had played softball with her. She was on a team in California, I was on a team in Connecticut. I said, “Carol, come on, let’s go. What do you need me to do?”

From there I became a member of that executive board. We sat across the table from then HEW Secretary Joe Califano, along with our cohorts at the NCAA, who couldn’t stand us. But we sat across the table and bargained for what the Title IX regulations were going to say in terms of their application to interscholastic and intercollegiate sport. It was pretty funny, when I look back on it. The women were on one side of the table. We’d come into the meeting. It’s simple. We’ll just take half the money and women should get a chance to do with half of the money. That’s equality. We’ll figure out how to do it. The men were just, are you kidding? Indeed, the Title IX regulations deferred to their mythical views of sport and it bit them in the rear end later on.

The three definitions of equality, the three prongs of Title IX were built on their false premises. One, men should have more opportunities than women because they are a higher proportion of the student body, especially in college. They were interested in college sports. Why it bit them later on is now colleges are 56% women. They never envisioned the future where women would outnumber men in our colleges and universities.

Second, they said, well, women aren’t interested in sports. There should be an exception that if you can’t find women who play, then you should not have to comply with Title IX. But no one has ever been able to prove that that situation existed.

There was another provision that said, if a school could prove that they’re trying every two years, adding a sport, increasing the opportunities for women, that should be okay. 50 years after Title IX passed, no one can use the second two prongs. Nobody could say, oh, we are trying harder. All they have to do is start a woman’s team and it’s successful. I’ve never met a coach who you paid a salary to, gave a few scholarships and then came back saying, “I don’t think I could find anybody to play.”

There’s no way that a school can say I completely met the interest and abilities of women. I can’t find another sport to add for women. We have about 3.6 million girls who are playing high school sports. There aren’t even 300,000 opportunities to play college sports. There are so many women in the funnel, so much pent-up demand that colleges and universities can’t meet the interests and abilities of either men or women. They’re limited by the number of teams they say they prefer to sponsor.

Here we are, 50 years after Title IX, women are still getting a billion dollars less than they deserve in terms of the athletic scholarships. They’re still getting only 44% of all participation opportunities in the college level, even though they’re 56% of the population. They’re getting about 42% of all high school opportunities, even though they are approximately 50% of the population. It never was a zero-sum game. The boys never lost because women wanted to play. There are more boys participating today than there were in 1972. Never if I give one opportunity to women, we’re going to take an opportunity away.

JW:  But that’s what you heard.

DL:  It was always portrayed as a zero-sum game. What’s stunning to me is that the numbers of women who are playing now, the 3.6 million. That still hasn’t reached the number of men who were participating in 1972, which was about 3.8 million. People should celebrate tremendous progress, but the job isn’t done fully. It takes three generations to really change formerly all-male cultural institutions, like sport, like religion, like politics, like the military. It takes forever, and you just have to wait until the dinosaurs die off. Even though everybody is celebrating 50 years of Title IX, we can’t have that be a false flag.

JW:  I liked hearing about the first negotiation, I just can’t imagine what their faces looked like. Do you remember any particular story in the negotiation? I’d also like to hear about your continuing activity after that initial activity.

DL:  Well, it’s not about negotiations, but about the politics of change. Because of that experience with Title IX, I’ve learned how to deal with Congress. I’ve learned about the politics of change. And the thing that always fascinated me was how smart the feminist movement was. It wasn’t just the women in sport who were leading the Title IX charge for athletics. It was 20 or 30 organizations representing 50 million women. Women build coalitions. They work together to do something.

The American Association for University Women, the National Women’s Law Center now, I recall there was a coffee klatch that still exists called the Coalition for Girls and Women in Education. This was a bunch of DC-based associations who met for coffee every Monday morning, and they would decide what they were going to do this week down on the Hill. They had this initial letter to do something with Title IX. The first page was what had to be done. The second page was all the signatories, the presidents of all the organizations.

Every Monday morning at coffee, they decided how to change the first page. Then go in and say, we’re representing 50 million people, we want a meeting with Senator so and so. It would be the next thing that had to be championed. That group wielded this power of 50 million women with responsibility, with tenacity. That’s how change really gets made before anybody else, before the highly paid lobbyists could get to members of Congress. These women were there and they made sure these guys understood that they were dads first and your daughter played sports, and guess what? Sport is as important for your daughter as it is for your son. That’s really what won Title IX.

JW:  What was your role?

DL:  I didn’t live in DC, so I was never a member of that group, but everybody participated by conference call on what was going to be on the first page, what we had to work on. For instance, in ’74, ’75, there were a group of senators who were out to exempt men’s football and basketball from Title IX. Getting Senator Kennedy and Birch Bayh and Edith Green and all of the people who were progressives on the educational side to defeat that effort, which was a four-time effort in terms of various bills, took up a significant amount of time. We were really good at it. Just really good at it. Like I said, I learned everything I know about working with Congress when I was 28 years old.

JW:  You’ve continued to be involved I assume. Are you playing a sport now?

DL:  Walking. I live in a condo community in Connecticut, and my sister and I are the administrators of the summer Bocce League.

JW:  That’s super. Men are invited if they want, right?

DL:  They play too. Men and women play. Absolutely. But seriously, my trying to keep active and to walk or hike a mile and a half every day for a week is plenty because I’m still working and I love the work I do.

JW:  What do you do?

DL:  My favorite part of what I do now is, I’m an expert witness in court cases when women aren’t getting a fair chance to play under Title IX. I testify in those kinds of lawsuits. Unfortunately, I also testify in youth sport cases involving sexual assault of girls by predominantly male coaches. Still, a tremendous problem, pedophiles in youth sport and that applies to both boys and girls in this country. That’s the competition part of what I do. But I also am a consultant in terms of helping schools that really want to do the right thing, to look at their programs and figure out how to afford equal opportunity and to raise money to expand opportunities for girls and women in sport.

JW:  Like you said at the outset, being turned away from that particular baseball team really was your path.

DL:  No question. I was the first Director of Women’s Athletics at the University of Texas at Austin, a position that would never have happened if Title IX didn’t exist. I was an accident of history, because the headliner to raise questions about whether Title IX was helpful or not, Darrell Royal, was the head football coach at the University of Texas. I became the Director of Women’s Athletics at the University of Texas. Darrell didn’t want any responsibility for women’s athletics.

We were one of only nine universities in the country that had a separately administered women’s athletic program, both of us reporting to the same Vice President. We would have never gotten the resources if we had to be under men’s athletics. After 18 years at Texas, I became the CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation which was all about advocacy for women’s sports and continued practicing, working with Congress and testifying before Congress.

And when I left there 15 years later, I opened my own consulting business and now I’m President of The Drake Group which is all about working with Congress to fix intercollegiate athletics not only for women athletes, but male athletes, too. It’s a very educationally and economically exploitive system, especially at the Division 1 level.

JW:  Are there any other closing comments you would like to make?

DL:  Advocacy is just great fun. Most nonprofit organizations are not only service providers, but they advocate for those who are less blessed than many of us. Without the new generation of young people who feel strongly about making sure everybody has equal rights in every facet of life, life would be dull and very depressing. I’m glad to still be in it, still be kicking.