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 Education 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 picture not having this opportunity,” said Raisa Lugo, a forward for Polk State Soccer. “I’m just so grateful this opportunity. To me, it’s something every little girl dreams of.”
More often than not, Title IX is mentioned in the context of sports. Lonnie Thompson, Polk State Chief Diversity Officer and Title IX Coordinator, said its goes beyond any field, court, or track.
“I think its most meaningful impact has nothing to do with athletics,” Thompson said. “It’s changed the landscape for women and their ability to get scholarships. It’s changed the role of women in the workplace, in education, in politics. It gave women an opportunity to use a sport of their choosing to have academic opportunities. In the end, they become better students, better leaders, and better citizens. For years, women were being denied this type of access.”
Thompson noted that prior to Title IX, athletic scholarships were available almost exclusively for male athletes.
“I’m thankful for the pioneers in women’s sports who have the paved the way,” said Donna Byars, sixth-year head coach of Polk State Softball. “I don’t want to ever take it for granted.”
With three women’s programs, Polk State currently has about 50 female athletes. Kailey Guethle, an All-State softball player for Polk State, dreamed of playing collegiately since she was 10. Her mother, Courtney Cross (now Guethle) was also a college 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 may not have been able to.”
Unlike Guethle and Lugo, Rayna Durden, a second-year Polk State student and first-year outside hitter for the volleyball team, didn’t discover volleyball until high school. A basketball enthusiast and player, Durden was encouraged by the Fleming Island High School volleyball coach to give another sport a try. 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,” she said. “It’s changed my future.”
Benefits Beyond Sports
For many student-athletes, the motivation to excel on the field leads to excellence in the classroom. This past academic year, Polk State had nine student-athletes named to the NJCAA All-Academic Team. More are expected to be named to the FCSAA All-Academic Team later this month.
“I really got so much out of my playing experience,” said Jess Belli, third-year head soccer coach at Polk State and a player at Palm Beach Atlantic University from 2000-04. “Soccer was such a motivation for me to take care of my academics and get through college.”
Title IX legislation has allowed coaches like Belli and Byars to make a career in the sports they love. Byars has 10 years of head coaching experience in softball. Belli has served as a soccer coach for nearly two decades with about half of that time spent as either a head coach or associate head coach.
“It’s unfathomable for that to not have been an option for me,” Belli said. “Athletics give girls a sense of belonging on a college campus and pride for the school.”
A former multi-sport athlete at Fort Valley State University in Georgia, Thompson isn’t sure where he would be without the athletic opportunity he received. Athletics 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 got me out of my neighborhood and the rut I was in,” he said. “I think the reason that athletes are more successful from a retention standpoint is the sense of belonging and the camaraderie that comes with being part of a team. Kids are motivated to go to class because they need to keep their grades up to play.”
Lugo has been playing soccer since she was 3 years old; her father was her first coach. Lugo, an NJCAA All-Academic Team selection, agreed that playing soccer adds motivation to perform in the classroom. She noted that other life skills are also developed through athletics.
“It definitely pushes me to keep everything in line,” she said. “It creates a balance and helps with time management. Having these skills will help me in the long run.”
Durden said she never lacked confidence as an athlete. As a student, however, she’s seen that confidence grow substantially.
“We don’t always think about this with women, but some are more athletic than they are academic,” Durden noted. “It pushes women to do better in the classroom. As a student, I doubted myself. Grades are a requirement and I now realize that I’m capable of doing the work.”
With a large percentage of international players on Polk State’s volleyball team, the American-born Durden said volleyball has also provided an opportunity to try new things such as food and to learn new things.
“Being a female student-athlete opens yourself to new friendships,” she said. “We’ve become so close. I’ve learned new languages and more about other cultures than ever before. It’s been a blessing to be around these smart, beautiful, 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 says that pitching allows herself to challenge herself as well.
“As a pitcher, there is a real individual aspect,” she said. “I love both the team and individual aspects of this game.”
A Growth in Popularity
While Title IX has been in existence for 50 years, women’s sports has grown immensely in popularity recently. In 2022, the best-of-three championship series at the NCAA Division I Softball Women’s College World Series averaged 100,000 more viewers per contest than NCAA Division I Baseball College World Series, played by men, according to ESPN.
“I think the exposure is bringing more people to the sport,” Guethle said. “Little kids who grow up with a love for 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 the men. Young girls have opportunities now that their mothers, grandmothers, and girls 20 years ago never would have dreamed.”
When it comes to softball, increasing popularity can be measured in more than just viewership but by capacity and attendance. Byars recalled attending the 2012 Women’s College World Series. As she was watching on television in June, she noticed seating that didn’t exist before.
In 2018, renovations to USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City increased seating by nearly 45%, bringing the capacity to more than 13,000. On June 4, the Women’s College World Series set a single-day attendance record with a crowd of more than 12,500 people.
“Softball’s popularity has grown tremendously,” Byars said. “Even during the regular season, you can watch it on national TV just about every night.”
The same can be said for women’s soccer. During the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, about 14.3 million viewers tuned into the final as the United States knocked off 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 streaming is included, FOX Sports estimates that about 20 million viewers tuned in.
“A lot more people are gravitating toward women playing sports,” Lugo said. “The media is covering it more than ever. I’m fortunate 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 U.S. With total attendance reaching nearly 1.2 million for the duration of the event, Brandy Chastain famously ripped her shirt in celebration after scoring the winning goal as the U.S. topped China on penalty kicks for the championship.
“There was a huge explosion of popularity during the 1999 World Cup,” Belli said. “I would say another reason for in women’s soccer’s success is how much club soccer has grown. Kids can play and are well-coached at younger ages. It’s more competitive than ever before.”
When it comes to volleyball, about 445,000 girls play in high school, according to Slamstox, a company that serves student-athletes. According to USA Volleyball, the sport is the most popular recreationally in the world and the second-most popular in the U.S. behind only basketball.
Including the NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA, there are more than 1,500 college softball and women’s soccer programs nationally and more than 1,800 women’s volleyball programs.
“The mentorship and the students’ drive to succeed 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 caveats and principles of Title IX are maintained.”