Women’s athletics has been a mainstay at Polk State College and academic institutions across the country for as long as most can remember, but there was a time when opportunities for women in sports were few and far between.
June marked the 50th year of Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972. The legislation prohibits discrimination in any educational program that receives federal financial assistance. Included in the highly regarded legislation was athletics.
“For me, it’s hard to imagine not having this opportunity,” Polk State Soccer forward Raisa Lugo said. “I am so grateful for this opportunity. To me, it’s something every girl dreams of.”
Most of the time, Title IX is mentioned in the context of sports. Lonnie Thompson, Polk State Director of Diversity and Title IX Coordinator, said it goes beyond any field, court or track.
“I think his most significant impact has nothing to do with athletics,” Thompson said. “The landscape has changed for women and their ability to obtain scholarships. The role of women in the workplace, in education, in politics has changed. It gave women the opportunity to use a sport of their choice for academic opportunities. In the end, they become better students, better leaders, and better citizens. For years, women were denied this kind of access.”
Thompson noted that prior to Title IX, athletic scholarships were available almost exclusively to male athletes.
“I am grateful for the trailblazers in women’s sports who paved the way,” said Donna Byars, sixth-year head coach at Polk State Softball. “I never want to take it for granted.”
With three programs for women, Polk State currently has about 50 female athletes. Kailey Guethle, an All-State softball player for Polk State, has dreamed of playing in college since she was 10 years old. Her mother, Courtney Cross (now Guethle), was also a varsity softball player at St. Petersburg College.
“The biggest impact softball has for me is the fact that I get to go to college,” Guethle said. “Otherwise, I might not have been able to.”
Unlike Guethle and Lugo, Rayna Durden, a Polk State sophomore and freshman outside hitter for the volleyball team, didn’t discover volleyball until high school. As a basketball player and enthusiast, Durden was encouraged to try another sport by Fleming Island High School’s volleyball coach. Before long, she was playing volleyball on the American Athletic Union circuit and colleges took notice of her talent.
“Volleyball has opened a lot of doors for me that basketball didn’t open for me,” he said. “My future has changed.”
Benefits beyond sport
For many student-athletes, the motivation to excel on the field leads to excellence in the classroom. Last academic year, Polk State had nine student-athletes named to the NJCAA All-Academic Team. More individuals are expected to be named to the FCSAA Academic Team later this month.
“I really got a lot out of my playing experience,” said Jess Belli, a third-year head football coach at Polk State and a player at Palm Beach Atlantic University from 2000 to 2004. “Football was a huge motivation for me to take care of my study and finish university.
Title IX legislation has allowed coaches like Belli and Byars to make careers in the sports they love. Byars has 10 years of experience as a head coach in softball. Belli has been coaching football for nearly two decades and about half of that time has been spent as a head coach or associate head coach.
“It’s inconceivable that that wasn’t an option for me,” Belli said. “Athletics gives girls a sense of belonging on a college campus and pride in the school.”
Thompson, a former multisport athlete at Fort Valley State University in Georgia, isn’t sure where he would be without the athletic opportunity he received. Track and field helped Thompson earn his bachelor’s degree from Fort Valley State. He later earned a master’s degree from Indiana University.
“It was athletics that took me out of my neighborhood and out of the rut I was in,” he said. “I think the reason athletes are more successful from a retention standpoint is the sense of belonging and camaraderie that comes with being part of a team. The children are motivated to go to class because they need to keep up their grades to play.”
Lugo has been playing soccer since he was 3 years old; his father was his first coach. Lugo, an NJCAA All-Academic Team selection, agreed that playing soccer adds motivation to perform in the classroom. He noted that other life skills are also developed through athletics.
“It definitely pushes me to keep everything in order,” he said. “It creates a balance and helps with time management. Having these skills will help me in the long run.”
Durden said he never lacked confidence as an athlete. However, as a student, he has seen his confidence grow substantially.
“We don’t always think about this with women, but some women are more athletic than academic,” Durden said. “It pushes women to do better in the classroom. As a student, I doubted myself. Qualifications are a requirement and now I realize that I am capable of doing the job.”
With a large percentage of international players on the Polk State volleyball team, the American-born Durden said volleyball has also provided an opportunity to try new things, like food, and learn new things.
“Being a student-athlete opens you up to new friendships,” she said. “We have become so close. I have learned new languages and more about other cultures than ever before. It has been a blessing to be around these smart, beautiful and talented women.”
A two-way player, Guethle led the Eagles in most pitching categories last season, including earned run average (2.47), appearances (34), innings pitched (133), complete games (9) and strikeouts ( 79). She enjoys the bond with her teammates, but she says throwing also allows her to challenge herself.
“As a pitcher, there’s a real individual aspect,” he said. “I love both the team and the individual aspects of this game.”
A growth in popularity
While Title IX has been around for 50 years, women’s sports have grown tremendously in popularity recently. In 2022, the best-of-three championship series in the NCAA Division I Women’s College Softball World Series averaged 100,000 more viewers per contest than the men’s NCAA Division I Baseball College World Series , according to ESPN.
“I think the exposure is bringing more people into the sport,” Guethle said. “Young boys who grew up loving this game now have female athletes they can watch on TV and look up to. More people tuned in to watch the Women’s College World Series than men. Young women have opportunities now that their mothers, grandmothers and girls 20 years ago would never have dreamed of.”
When it comes to softball, the growing popularity can be measured not only by viewership, but also by capacity and attendance. Byars recalled attending the 2012 Women’s College World Series. As she watched television in June, she noticed seats that didn’t exist before.
In 2018, renovations to the USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City increased seating by nearly 45%, bringing capacity to more than 13,000. On June 4, the The Women’s College World Series set a single-day attendance record with a crowd of more than 12,500.
“Softball’s popularity has grown tremendously,” Byars said. “Even during the regular season, you can see it on national television almost every night.”
The same can be said for women’s football. During the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, around 14.3 million viewers watched the final as the United States defeated the Netherlands 2-0, according to Nielsen. That was about 22% more than tuned in to watch the 2018 Men’s World Cup final. If the broadcast is included, FOX Sports estimates that about 20 million viewers tuned in.
“A lot more people gravitate toward women who play sports,” Lugo said. “The media is covering it more than ever. I’m lucky that I’ve always been able to watch women play sports.”
Many, including Belli, point to the 1999 World Cup as a watershed moment for women’s soccer in the US. With total attendance reaching nearly 1.2 million over the duration of the event, Brandy Chastain ripped her jersey to celebrate after scoring the game-winner as the United States outscored China on penalties for the championship.
“There was a huge explosion in popularity during the 1999 World Cup,” Belli said. “I would say that another reason for the success of women’s football is how much club football has grown. Children can play and are well trained at younger ages. It’s more competitive than ever.”
When it comes to volleyball, some 445,000 girls play in high school, according to Slamstox, a company that caters to student-athletes. According to USA Volleyball, the sport is the most popular recreational sport in the world and the second most popular in the US after basketball.
Including the NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA, there are more than 1,500 varsity softball and women’s soccer programs nationwide and more than 1,800 women’s volleyball programs.
“Mentoring and pushing students to be successful on the field or court is key to success in the classroom,” Thompson said. “As an institution, we have a responsibility to ensure that the warnings and principles of Title IX are upheld.”