‘See it to be it’: BIG EAST Commissioner Val Ackerman highlights how Title IX law brought nationwide progress for women in sports

BIG EAST Commissioner Val Ackerman was the keynote speaker at a Marquette University event at the Wisconsin Club on Friday, Oct. 7. The event, headlined, “Excellence in Athletics: From fierce competitors to female trailblazers” is part of a university-wide effort connected with the Time to Rise campaign and the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

Ackerman, who also served as founding president of the WNBA and past president of USA Basketball, said that “Title IX profoundly impacted my life journey.” She pointed to her parents for both instilling the importance of being a good sport and teammate, while also helping pave her way.

“It didn’t matter that I was a girl,” Ackerman said when describing what it was like to grow up playing sports beside her brother. “When it came to the pursuit of dreams, my mom and dad treated us exactly the same.”

Opportunity opens doors

Ironically, her athletic success on the court started after she was cut from cheerleading in junior high school — the only sport her school offered. “I was crushed,” she said. Despite the setback, she became “mesmerized” with women athletes on television, highlighting tennis star Billie Jean King and figure skater Dorothy Hamill.

“As Billie Jean King and others often say, you have to see it to be it,” she said. Title IX became law just as she was finishing up seventh grade, meaning schools had to establish teams for both boys and girls. Ackerman quickly excelled in three high school sports — basketball, field hockey and outdoor track — and rode her athletic ticket to become one of only two partial-scholarship athletes at the University of Virginia.

“Systemic change doesn’t happen overnight,” Ackerman said, “But, still, my experience paralleled an incredible story of progress in our country.”

Closing the gaps

Looking ahead, Ackerman highlighted the potential for women to make a far greater impact than the court or playing field. “We’ve had transformational change in the space of two generations,” she said. “What people don’t talk about has cascading effects on women’s empowerment in society.”

She noted the lack of equal access to compete for girls in urban neighborhoods and lower-income communities as well as the need for more representation from women in sports management positions.

“We need to close those gaps if we are to achieve what title IX set out to create — equal opportunities for all,” she said, calling on attendees to pledge to open one door for one girl for the goal to become within our reach.

“It’s not only about optics,” Ackerman said. “A growing body of research shows that women’s empowerment leads to more profitable businesses, more representative governments, healthier communities, stronger families and greater dialogue and consensus.”

In closing the event, Vice President and Director of Athletics Bill Scholl honored Ackerman while also pushing for more progress.

“Val is absolutely one of legends, pioneers and icons in sports,” Scholl said. “She is an incredibly strong advocate for our student athletes — both our women and our men. There is a lot more work to do. We can’t ever take our foot off the gas.”