Susan Shackelford: ‘She has her own ball, and it’s a good one’

This is the first story in the SLR Original series on Title IX. A sports journalist and historian who co-authored a book about the history of women’s basketball, Susan Shackelford watched the development of Title IX rules in real time as a student journalist at the University of North Carolina. 

In her own words here she tells us about her life in sports, including her days at UNC.

I graduated from high school in 1972, the same year Congress passed Title IX. But I was oblivious to the nondiscrimination law and how it would forever change girls’ and women’s sports.

Why, I’m not sure. 

For the past four years, I had fought battles at Millbrook High in Raleigh, N.C., to keep the only conference sport our school offered for girls: basketball. Along with teammates, I wrote a resolution to preserve our game time (it was preserved), visited with our principal to protest his plan to end the team for lack of a coach (we found one) and helped make our own uniforms when our old ones didn’t fit. The old uniforms channeled the 1950s and early ’60s with their satiny sheen and thigh-high shorts. Ugh.

Many years later, I learned Title IX’s application to athletics even flew under the radar of the lawmakers crafting the bill. Not until my sophomore year at UNC Chapel Hill would I learn about Title IX from a professor who was also a women’s sports administrator. I think she singled me out because I was covering women’s sports for the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, and writing a weekly women’s sports column for The Greensboro (N.C.) Daily News

“Sure — give it a shot” 

As a budding journalism major, I was thrilled to have the gigs — not only because I cared about the topic, and knew a lot about athletics, but because women’s sports were seldom covered and deserved their share of ink. Unfortunately, the lack of ongoing coverage of women’s sports is still a reality today. 

My first DTH assignment, in the spring of my freshman year (1973), was to bring in the women’s tennis scores from home matches. After a few contests, I saw how busy the sports staff was one day and asked if I could “write the scores up.” Sports Editor Winston Cavin said something like, “Sure — give it a shot.” 

Women’s tennis soon became just one of the female sports at UNC that I wrote about. The coaches and players on women’s teams not being covered pulled me aside here and there and asked if I would write about them. Thanks to the open-mindedness of Cavin and his successor as sports editor, Elliott Warnock, I could say “Yes.” In the process, I became the first reporter on the student newspaper to cover the women’s teams on a regular basis.

I was the beat reporter for the eight women’s sports at UNC during that 1973-74 school year, which helped groom me for a journalism career that eventually included being DTH sports editor (the first woman to hold that position) and working as a full-time sportswriter after graduating. 

Susan Shackelford covers the 1976 men’s ACC basketball tournament in Landover, Md
At UNC-Chapel Hill, Susan Shackelford was the Daily Tar Heel’s first female sports editor. Here she covers the 1976 men’s ACC basketball tournament in Landover, Md. (SUSAN SHACKLEFORD)

Also during that 1973-74 school year, I took a physical education course from Dr. Virginia R. “Raye” Holt, who headed the women’s sports program at UNC. Walking by my desk one day, she quietly dropped a binder on my desk and said something like, “Take a look at this and give me a call.” The binder turned out to be preliminary government rules for implementation of Title IX. 

“Does this mean what I think it means”

When I read the document, I wondered if I could believe what I was seeing. The law seemed revolutionary — and of course, it was. Calling Dr. Holt, I said something like, “Does this mean what I think it means — that women sports are going to grow and get more funding and resources?” 

“Yes,” she said. 

The big political battle was going to be what constituted “nondiscrimination” in spending on opportunities, resources, treatment and facilities. Would a 50-50 revenue split be called for, or would “comparable” allocations satisfy the law? “Comparable” won the day, but even that meant a colossal change. No longer could schools provide few to no women’s sports if they provided sports to men — unless they wanted to risk legal challenges. The government was now in the corner of female athletic opportunities.

Still many schools, especially large ones with high-profile football programs, tried to kill or limit Title IX through regulations and congressional action. After a protracted fight into the mid-to-late 1970s, the law settled in and schools resistant to it had to yield. Girls and women who wanted sports opportunities didn’t have to battle year in and year out as we had at Millbrook — not only to be treated fairly but to even exist.

The resolution that several of my Millbrook teammates and I wrote to keep our game time intact was like a fire drill. We heard about the situation the same day our conference coaches were going to vote on moving our girls’ varsity basketball games to the afternoon. The proposal would move the boys’ junior varsity games to our better time slot of early evening before the boys’ varsity. Infuriated that the only team we had as girls was going to be relegated to a time that few people could attend, we hastily drafted a resolution with roughly a half-dozen points about why it was unfair and handed it to our coach to present at the coaches’ meeting after school. 

The next morning, we were thrilled to learn the coaches had voted our way and that our resolution had made a difference. 

“Coach Shackelford’s daughter” 

My love of basketball and other sports goes back as far as I can remember. The oldest daughter of a high school teacher and coach in Mebane, N.C., a textile and furniture town between Greensboro and Durham, I learned early on how to throw, pitch, hit, catch, shoot, pass and dribble. My dad, George Shackelford, was the big reason. He taught me the skills, made the games fun, and lived sports every day as a fan and a coach. I mirrored his love of athletics, and many people around town didn’t know me by name but as “Coach Shackelford’s daughter.” 

Though drenched in athletics from early on, I found little to nothing in organized sports except in the town’s summer rec program started by my dad. And even then, he could barely get two teams of girls to play a softball game. Also, the girls were all just one big group, not divided by age like the boys, when we all participated in rec department contests ranging from free-throw shooting to box hockey to the broad jump. Remember tether ball? I raked in more than my share of trophies because of the limited number of girls participating and my sports-immersion advantage. 

Why weren’t more girls playing sports at the time? Lack of exposure, it seemed, but some finally did receive their chance in the summer rec program. 

The rest of the year, I played sports at recess and after school with mostly boys. When I was an adult and back in Mebane for a visit, I happened to run into my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Carroll. She remembered how I brought a football helmet to school each day for games at recess.

I was proud of that helmet. I had painted an old Mebane High helmet white and put a red stripe down it. I started taking it to school in fourth grade, continued in fifth grade but gave up doing that when I entered sixth grade in Raleigh. 

I’m not sure why. Maybe the boys in Raleigh weren’t playing football at recess. I know they played basketball because I was usually the center, being tall for my age at 5 feet, 3 inches. Plus, I had a good hook shot, a rarity among kids. 

If I thought Mebane had limited sports for girls, the east Raleigh suburb where we moved in the mid-1960s was even worse.

Shack + Chris Evert
In August 1976, Susan Shackleford (right) interviewed Chris Evert, who had just won the Wimbledon women’s singles title for the second time a few weeks earlier. (SUSAN SHACKLEFORD)

When the family was looking at homes in the Raleigh area, my dad told me the city schools didn’t have girls basketball teams, but the Wake County schools did. I asked him and my mom if we could limit our search to Wake County because of that, and they were supportive. It would be three years before I got to high school, but it was great to know the Millbrook team was out there as a goal. 

In the meantime, I worked my way into pickup basketball games with teenage boys across the road from my neighborhood. They ignored me for a good while at first. 

But the day I took my basketball to the court I got their attention. I could see it on their faces: She has her own ball and it’s a good one. They wanted to play with it, and from then on, I could get into games. Though the guys were older and taller than I was, my hook shot and passing skills fared especially well. What teammate doesn’t like a good assist?

“I just had to ask”

That’s what Title IX gave to girls and women, a good assist through legal clout. Not until the law came along in 1972, and began being enforced later in the decade, could girls and women depend on something other than the enlightenment of those in charge, most of whom were men. 

Sadly, apart from some men like my dad, male enlightenment was in short supply. Even Millbrook High’s principal, R.E. Cobb, who was otherwise progressive in how he ran our school in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was quick to try to drop our basketball team when he couldn’t find a coach. 

Years later, I saw him at a retirement party for a Millbrook coach. It turned out the retiree had coached Mr. Cobb’s daughter in volleyball, and he told me she had gotten so much out of playing. I couldn’t resist asking him, “So, are sports really good for girls after all?” He looked shocked for a second or two and then chuckled lightly. 

“I just had to ask,” I said.

Read the next part of our series on Title IXJudy Murphy.