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Pitching Equality on the Nation's Athletic Fields : Sports: Ex-star athlete and new head of the Women's Sports Foundation relentlessly campaigns for women's programs.

April 18, 1993|IRENE GARCIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the age of 4, Donna Lopiano says the only thing she wanted to do in life was be a pitcher for the New York Yankees.

"I grew up on a street (in Stamford, Conn.) with 15 boys," she said. "At 11, we tried out for Little League, and I was a first-round choice. But the president of the Little League said I couldn't play because I was a girl, and no girls were allowed.

"I was devastated. . . . I cried for three months."

Eventually, she stopped crying and became an outstanding athlete anyway.

Lopiano was a softball All-American in college, excelled in field hockey, basketball and volleyball and is a member of the National Sports Hall of Fame and the Professional Softball Hall of Fame.

She coached college volleyball, softball and basketball and served as the women's athletic director at the University of Texas at Austin for 17 years. During Lopiano's tenure, women's teams set attendance records and earned $2 million a year in revenues; at the same time, Texas women athletes had a 90% graduation rate.

"She took a program from nowhere," said Texas women's basketball coach Jody Conradt, "and brought not only national prominence, but she did it at a time when no one really thought women's athletics stood a chance."

Today, at 46, Lopiano is a well-known and respected figure in the male-dominated world of amateur and professional athletics. And now she's in the best position of her life to help female athletes.

For the last 10 months, Lopiano has been running the Women's Sports Foundation, an organization that was founded by Billie Jean King and is dedicated to promoting and enhancing sports and fitness for girls and women.

Every year, the WSF gives out more than $1 million in grants and scholarships to female athletes at all levels. It publishes pamphlets on such topics as minorities in sports and athletic scholarships available to women and operates a toll-free hot line where callers can get information on everything from local girls' softball leagues to policies and laws concerning female athletes.

Since taking over the New York-based WSF, Lopiano has toured the country, relentlessly promoting its mission.

"She is a woman of passion," said Conradt, who served as Lopiano's assistant athletic director for 16 years. "Early on I nicknamed her 'Nothing in Moderation Lopiano.' I can't think of anyone I'd rather have fighting for this cause."

But Lopiano's successes have not come without tension and controversy.

"Certainly, she has alienated the good ol' boy network," said a college administrator who asked not to be identified. "They see her as a threat."

Said another: "Some say she's too pushy and aggressive. She goes after people and pushes them out of their comfort zone."

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Lopiano believes sports have always been an essential training ground for boys, helping to develop confidence and self-esteem. She believes that resources for women and girls pale in comparison.

Title IX, signed into law on June 23, 1972, was supposed to change that. It read: "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 educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

At the time, many people involved in scholastic sports believed Title IX would equalize the playing field. At the college level, proponents thought the act would mandate equal funding for men and women's programs.

Lopiano--with many other coaches, administrators and athletes--believes that the promise of Title IX has been only partly fulfilled. Participation on girl's and women's high school and college teams has skyrocketed, but funding has not. According to an NCAA study released last year, men's intercollegiate teams receive nearly 70% of athletic scholarship money, 77% of operating dollars and 83% of recruiting funds, even though the total enrollment of men and women is virtually equal.

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lopiano cited these and other National Collegiate Athletic Assn. statistics to emphasize her concerns that women are getting the short end of the stick in college sports.

She pointed out that at most schools, the notion that football subsidizes other sports programs is untrue. At about 91% of institutions affiliated with the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. (college sports' governing body), football does not pay for women's sports and does not even pay for itself, Lopiano noted. And, among lucrative big-time college football programs, 45% are running annual average deficits of $638,000.

The article ruffled feathers at the NCAA headquarters in Kansas. But someone may be listening. Last year the NCAA established a gender equity task force that is supposed to come up with a plan to remedy the imbalance.

"She's very much a crusader," said Dave Cawood, NCAA assistant executive director of communications. "She's very outspoken, and she works very hard at it. People respect what she's done."

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