In August 2020 the Washington Football Team named the 38-year-old Jason Wright the franchise’s president, making him the first Black president in NFL history. His combination of on-the-field NFL experience and corporate boardroom chops made him an ideal candidate to guide the team’s cultural and business transformation.
Fifty years ago, Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in any education program or activity that receives federal funding. Though not the primary or only result of the legislation, participation in women’s athletics increased dramatically thanks to Title IX.
In the year that Title IX passed, just 2% of college athletic budgets went to women’s sports, and fewer than 30,000 women participated in college athletics. Today more than 220,000 women participate — accounting for 44% of all college athletes. And while budgets for women’s athletics have increased, colleges and universities still spend roughly 71 cents on women’s sports for every dollar spent on men’s athletics.
When universities expanded budgets for women’s athletics, new scholarship opportunities made a Northwestern education accessible for a larger pool of competitors.
Northwestern Magazine caught up with a few former Northwestern student-athletes and asked them how their Wildcat athletic experience helped shape their lives.
Patty Walsh Iverson ’83, volleyball
My freshman year at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Illinois in 1975 marked just the second year of interscholastic competition for girls in the state. Before then, competition was only intramural and poorly funded.
Our team clinched the 1978 Illinois Girls Volleyball State Championship, and I was awarded an athletic scholarship to top-tiered Northwestern University, where tuition was out of the range of what my family could afford. Many of my high school teammates were also awarded scholarships at universities around the country.
I am grateful for the amazing experience I had at Northwestern. I pursued a bachelor’s degree in history while our volleyball team became nationally ranked. I made friendships and professional connections with teammates, coaches and classmates that I maintain and cherish to this day.
I have tried to give back to Title IX throughout my career. After playing volleyball professionally and assistant coaching at the college level for several years, I earned a master’s in history and eventually secured a social studies teaching position at York High School in Elmhurst, Ill., where I taught mostly Advanced Placement U.S. history classes until I retired in 2020. Along the way, I coached the school’s girls’ and boys’ volleyball teams.
Teaching and coaching provided opportunities to instill in students and athletes the life lessons and team values from my volleyball-playing years that have been so formative in my life, and to help them appreciate the hard-won civil rights gains throughout American history, including Title IX.
In sum, Title IX has afforded me and countless women many opportunities to compete in life on a more even playing field, for which I am ever grateful.
Patty Walsh Iverson retired after a 20-year career as a high school history teacher and coach. She met her husband, Keith, while assistant coaching at Northwestern. They’ve been married for 32 years and raised two daughters. A three-time All-American, Iverson helped lead the Wildcats to a second-place finish in the Big Ten in her senior year. She was inducted into the Northwestern Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.
Anucha Browne ’85, basketball
Considering that the most popular sports for girls in high school prior to Title IX were cheerleading and square dancing, the passage of the legislation in 1972 had a profound impact on my life. For the majority of my career I have held high-level and C-suite positions at major organizations — IBM, the NBA, the State University of New York at Buffalo, the NCAA, UNICEF and now TIDES. The lessons in leadership, teamwork and courage that I learned as an athlete have guided my choices and decisions. Through the many storms I’ve weathered, my path has been steeped in the legacy of Title IX.
Now that we have time to reflect on 50 years of progress, I can say that I am one of the fortunate beneficiaries of Title IX. As a result of my career opportunities, I have a platform. So, it is with this platform and new period of racial reckoning in our country that we must acknowledge that the vast majority of those who have benefited from Title IX have been white women. Across the country, states fail to provide equitable funding for programs in poor communities. As a result, girls of color in underserved communities have not seen the same opportunities as those in affluent communities.
Our true north, in which we see equity for all, will be realized when we all speak up and speak out as agents of change for those who have been left behind. Title IX changed my life exponentially. But there’s still much work to be done, and those forgotten girls must be part of the national conversation to advance change for all.
Anucha Browne is chief impact officer for TIDES, a philanthropic partner and nonprofit accelerator dedicated to building a world of shared prosperity and social justice. Browne was the Wildcats’ first All-American women’s basketball player and set 24 school records, most of which still stand today. She was a finalist for the Naismith Player of the Year award. She was inducted into the Northwestern Athletic Hall of Fame in 1993.
Diane Donnelly Stone ’87, tennis
In 1972 [tennis star gender equality advocate] Billie Jean King ’17 H testified on Capitol Hill on behalf of Title IX. She spoke to the need for such a bill, to allow girls and women to advance in their sport.
While competing at Northwestern, my tennis doubles partner, Katrina Adams ’89, and I had the opportunity to practice against Billie Jean and got to know her quite well. After graduating, I played on the professional tennis tour until injury forced me to stop. Once my tennis career was over, I began working for Billie Jean’s company, World Team Tennis. Pursuing a career in the tennis industry was a dream come true for a young girl who started playing at the age of 6!
I have worked with Billie Jean King for 33 years and have learned so much from her. I have tried to help educate the younger generations about the history and importance of Title IX, which remains one of the only laws in the U.S. that grants women any kind of equality.
Diane Donnelly Stone is a consultant to the United States Tennis Association Foundation and serves as an executive assistant to Billie Jean King. She is also executive director of the Donnelly Awards, a scholarship program for student-athletes who play tennis and have diabetes. She and her husband, former Wildcat golfer Michael Stone ’86, live in Glenview, Ill. They have been married for 33 years and have two children. An All-American singles and doubles player at Northwestern, Donnelly Stone won a national championship with Katrina Adams in 1987. Donnelly Stone was inducted into the Northwestern Athletic Hall of Fame in 1997. She will be inducted into the Intercollegiate Tennis Hall of Fame in September.
Chinazo Opia Cunningham ’90, softball
I remain grateful for my opportunity to receive a full-ride athletic scholarship to play softball at Northwestern. Without that scholarship, I could not have attended the University.
My student-athlete experience made me a strong candidate when applying to medical schools and taught me so many life lessons, including discipline, teamwork, leadership, perseverance, performance under pressure and much more.
Personally, I’m thankful for the overall expansion and growing exposure of collegiate women’s athletics in recent years. Living in New York City, I get to watch my daughter on TV as she competes for the University of Washington gymnastics team in Seattle. I also get to watch Northwestern softball. It’s wonderful to remain in touch and stay involved from afar.
Chinazo Opia Cunningham of Nyack, N.Y., a physician, researcher and public health professional with more than 20 years of expertise in substance use treatment, is commissioner of the New York State Office of Addiction Services and Supports. She and her husband, Everett Cunningham ’90, recently celebrated their 30-year anniversary and have three daughters. An outstanding pitcher and hitter at Northwestern, Opia Cunningham earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 1987 and was named a first-team Academic All-American in 1990. She was inducted into the Northwestern Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.
Dionna Latimer-Hearn ’99, soccer
My professional experiences have afforded me the opportunity to work with diverse populations and required me to effectively manage my time and overcome obstacles. These skills were honed during my time as a student-athlete at Northwestern.
Participating on the women’s soccer team also provided an opportunity for me to forge strong connections — many that I still cherish to this day — and work collaboratively with others toward a common goal, often under pressure.
Our team regularly engaged in community service in and around Evanston. Volunteering with my teammates underscored the importance of giving back. In 2008, I founded REACT Initiative Inc., a nonprofit organization advocating for equity in education. Since then, REACT has offered activities for Title I students and provided training and development for school-based professionals, postsecondary faculty, corporate employees and medical teams in the United States, Canada, Burkina Faso and Mauritius. [Title I funding is provided to schools with high percentages of low-income students.]
Title IX leveled the proverbial playing field for me and many other women. The skills I acquired through participation in collegiate athletics have been invaluable to my professional endeavors.
Dionna Latimer-Hearn is a speech-language pathologist and educational consultant in Grand Prairie, Texas. A Wildcat from 1995 to 1998, she scored 19 career goals, including six game-winners.
Kristen Kjellman Marshall ’07, lacrosse
My experience as a Northwestern student-athlete and a member of the lacrosse team in the mid-2000s shaped the person I am today. The lessons I learned, the traits I developed and the relationships I formed gave me a serious jump-start into adulthood.
Numerous times, I’ve been asked during job interviews to reflect on my commitment, work ethic and ability to collaborate. Northwestern set a high bar for these attributes, and they remain a core part of my professional career.
Surely, lessons of resiliency that come with defeat are important, but the reality is that we were consistent winners. Northwestern lacrosse taught me to be a fierce competitor — and that’s certainly informed my daily outlook. I try to channel a relentless, champion mindset in everything I do.
I’m so proud to have been a student-athlete at Northwestern, and I love to support the vast network of kind, humble, impressive ’Cats!
Kristen Kjellman Marshall lives in Rye, N.H. She is vice president of content for WePlayed Sports, a sports video platform. She also serves on the USA Lacrosse Foundation board and coaches lacrosse at Phillips Exeter Academy. Kjellman Marshall was the first four-time All-American in Northwestern women’s lacrosse history while also winning the Tewaaraton Trophy — the Heisman Trophy of lacrosse — in back-to-back years (2006 and 2007). She was inducted into the Northwestern Athletic Hall of Fame in 2012.
This fall the University will host “Title IX @ 50: Past. Present. Future?” The three-day conference (Oct. 27–29) will explore the 50th anniversary of Title IX in a series of lectures, discussions and conversations.