I expect 2012 to be a great year. Not only do I plan on graduating in May with a Ph.D., but I will also receive one of highest honors in sports. On Sunday, February 19, 2012 in the USC Galen Center during halftime of the USC and UCLA women’s basketball game, USC will retire the jerseys of my twin sister and I. Most people in my women’s studies and theology world do not really know that I have a twin sister, nor do they fully appreciate that about twenty-five years ago, my sister and I played on one of the most prominent teams in women’s basketball and in women’s sports. We won two back-to-back national championships in 1983 and 1984. We were also the first NCAA national champions (previous women’s teams were American Intercollegiate Association for Women (AIAW) championships). My sister and I played with Cynthia Cooper and Cheryl Miller. Our team was one the first women’s teams to get mainstream acceptance in the larger sports world. We were not just “girls” that happened to play a sport; we were “real” athletes. We received the same media attention and acceptance of any sports team during that period.
Most of my feminist friends—the preachers, scholars, and theologians—have no idea of what it means for a university to retire a jersey. In the sports world, retiring an athlete’s jersey means that no other person in that sport will ever wear that number at that university. The retired athletic jersey hangs in the rafters of the sports facility forever. This honor for an athlete is synonymous to a scholar receiving a named endowed chair in the academy. What is exciting for me is that my jersey will not only be hanging with my sister’s—that alone would be enough to celebrate. USC is one of the few institutions in the country in which the majority of the retired jerseys are the jerseys of women: Cheryl Miller, Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper, and now Pam and Paula McGee. Cheryl and Cynthia are also members of the Naismith Hall of Fame, and Lisa is sure to join them with that honor very soon.
This year also marks the fortieth anniversary of Title IX. Title IX is the 1972 education amendment that protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Title IX states:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
I am sure that without this very important legislation my athletic accomplishments would not have been possible. Moreover, not only would I have not been able to compete in athletics and achieve this honor, I would not have been able to complete a bachelor’s degree in Sociology, two Master’s degrees, and this year a Ph.D. in Women’s Studies in Religion. As much as I want to celebrate my accomplishments and those of my teammates, in some ways I feel that the words of Charles Dickens ring true: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.“
It is the best of times that women like myself, can participate in athletics and be rewarded and honored for our accomplishments. It is the best of times that an African American woman with parents that barely finished high school has the opportunity to successfully receive a quality education. It is the worst of times, because most younger women today have no idea that there existed a time when women did not have these opportunities. It is the worst of times, that just thirty years later, many women have no idea about Title IX. Nor do they remember the sacrifices and the work of feminists and others who made all of this possible. It is the worst of times that many women do not self-identify as a feminist. Feminist has become the “f-word,” like the “n-word” for African Americans.
I am excited about this celebration. I have invited my family, colleagues, and friends to join me. However, because I am a Baptist preacher, I will make sure that I tell the story. I will be sure to remind everyone that I stand on the shoulders of women that dared to offer themselves in a very important struggle. When they hang my #11 jersey, I will be saying a word of prayer—a word of thanks—a word of celebration. In May, when I walk across the stage at graduation, I will whisper another word of prayer—a quiet “halleluiah” for all those nameless women who offered themselves at the academic altars of struggle so that my colleagues and I might have the opportunity to share our gifts as scholars, educators, and theologians. On that day and on February 19th I will be sure to celebrate and think about the best of times.