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Dr. Jan Bethea: ‘Women’s sports were secondary’

By Michael Tingolie

Dr. Jan Bethea has been involved in sports at every level. She was an athlete as a child and played basketball in college. After she finished her playing career, she worked in women’s basketball as an administrator, most notably at the University of Nebraska as the Director of Operations. Now she is educating the next wave of people who will work in the world of sport, as a Sport Management professor at Springfield College. Michael Tingolie talked with Bethea about how Title IX has affected people at every level – including her – and how it has progressed.

Q: Being the only girl in your family, were you allowed to play with the boys?

Bethea: Allowed? Yes, I was allowed to play because I was better than most boys. We would often go down to the park to play pick-up basketball. I have two brothers and four male cousins, so we had our own basketball team. The boys on the other team couldn’t say, “No, she isn’t allowed to play,” because my cousins weren’t having that.

Q: What was the process of getting recruited to play college basketball like?
Bethea: In the sixth grade, I played half-court basketball, also known as six-on-six, because back then, women weren’t allowed to play full-court. When I graduated high school in 1981, there weren’t a lot of athletic scholarships offered to women. Penn State and other top programs recruited me, but I didn’t want to move far away from home, so I went to East Carolina. Besides, that’s where all my friends went, and I wanted to be close to them even though ECU was not recruiting me.

During my freshman year in college, I played intramural sports. The head basketball coach saw me and said: “Why don’t you come to play for us?” So I did, and that’s how I got on the team. Most of my friends were cheerleaders or didn’t play sports, so I was an anomaly.

Q: Were there any major contrasts between your team and the men’s team?
Bethea: Absolutely. Heck, that still goes on nowadays. But in the ‘80s, everything was about men’s sports, and women’s sports were secondary. We always got the worst practice times. My coach once threw a fit because we had to practice at 6 a.m. The guys always got the cool gear and two or three pairs of shoes, whereas we only got one pair. But we didn’t understand that there shouldn’t have been a difference. We were conditioned; that’s how it was supposed to be. In those days, you didn’t argue against the system. We were happy to play, and it wasn’t till later that we felt we had a right to play.

Q: Was there a difference in your training regimens?
Bethea: The trainers and strength and conditioning coaches were still figuring out [if] women should condition or lift weights. The whole thing was, “If women start lifting weights, you don’t want them to get too strong because they will start looking like a man.” So, the training was different because the mindset was different.

I noticed a change because I worked at a lot of elite programs. But I heard the war stories from my colleagues. The big story from the NCAA March Madness a couple of years ago was the difference in women’s and men’s workout equipment. It’s again the mindset of: “Oh, women can do that? Women work that hard? They condition different?” But there are still many Title IX cases in athletics with women not being treated the same, and I experienced that [at Nebraska] with our budget being lower than the men’s. I fought hard because when we played at Iowa, we had to drive, and that’s a six-hour drive by bus. The men traveled on a charter flight to Iowa while we had to ride a bus. During my first couple of years, I pushed because it wasn’t fair. Finally, in that third year, we got to charter too. Sometimes you need to call people out on their implicit bias.

Photo Courtesy of Jan Bethea

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