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Book Review of "Full Court Press" by Bill Haltom and Amanda Swanson

Tuesday, December 11, 2018  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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Reviewed by Jay Watts, CMAA, Director of Athletics, Girls Preparatory School, Chattanooga, TN


On June 23, 1972, a federal law known as the Education Amendments Act of 1972 was enacted. Title IX of that law has become well known in the sporting world for its impact on the advancement of women’s sports. It specifically states that “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 education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Since its inception 46 years ago, female participation in high school athletics has increased by more than 900 percent.


However, Title IX certainly did not fix all of the issues facing gender inequities in sports in the early 1970s. Full Court Press: How Pat Summitt, A High School Basketball Player, and a Legal Team Changed the Game by Bill Haltom and Amanda Swanson details the story of one of many battles waged around the country after 1972 to ensure fair access to resources and opportunities for female athletes. Both entertaining and enlightening, the book tells the story of Victoria Cape and her battle against the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) to have the right to play full court, five-on-five basketball, the game that was played by high school boys and collegiate women at the time.


In 1976, 15-year-old Victoria Cape was perplexed to discover that her high school in Oak Ridge, TN, did not participate in five-on-five basketball for girls. Instead, the TSSAA allowed girls at that time to only play a six-player version of the boys’ game, where three “guards” would play defense and three “forwards” would play offense. No member of either group was allowed to cross the mid-court stripe, which meant that girls who played guard in high school never had a chance to dribble to the basket, score a point, or collect an offensive rebound.


Cape’s father, James, did not plan on taking the litigious route at first. He wrote a letter to the TSSAA asking for the governing body to allow girls to play by the boys’ rules, which were also the same rules that women played with at the collegiate level. His request was denied. Rather than accept the decision passively, however, James and Victoria, with the help of two local attorneys, filed a lawsuit in the federal courthouse in Knoxville, and the wheels of change for girls’ basketball, not only in Tennessee but also around the country, began to turn.


Full Court Press details the legal battle that ensued, starting in the federal court in Knoxville and involving a young and talented college coach from the University of Tennessee named Pat Summitt. Hired by UT in 1974, Summitt was at first a reluctant witness for the prosecution, having only been in her position at Tennessee for two years. While she certainly supported Victoria’s cause and had been frustrated with her own half-court basketball career in high school, she also did not want to upset high school coaches from around the state who supported the current system and would be needed to provide recruits for her program. 


Nonetheless, Summitt understood the Capes’ frustrations and would ultimately provide the turning point in the conflict. According to the authors, confining talented high school players, like Summitt herself had been, to only half of the court, was “like telling Beethoven he could only use the keys on the left side of a piano, or Aretha Franklin that she would have to make do with just two of her available four octaves.”


Of note in the book to both athletic directors and academic administrators is the claim made by Cape’s legal team that athletics was more than just an extracurricular activity but rather an integral part of the educational experience for girls. Athletics, they argued, touched on students’ physical and emotional growth as well as their development as leaders and members of their community. 


This argument has certainly been supported in numerous ways in the last few years. For example, research conducted by Ernst and Young in 2014 showed that 94 percent of C-suite executives played sports in their youth and more than half of those played sports in college. Another report from 2017 showed that girls who play sports have higher opinions of their abilities, have healthier relationships with their peers, and greater confidence in their ability to speak up for their own beliefs.


I read this book over Thanksgiving week, which seemed appropriate as the book gave me much to be thankful for as an athletic administrator at an all-girls school, a high school coach, and a father of a future female high school athlete. I am thankful for Victoria Cape and James Cape, who had the determination to see this issue through the legal system. I am thankful for Pat Summitt and her willingness to speak out for high school girls in the state of Tennessee. I am also thankful for the authors of the book, who told this story in a way that can be appreciated by readers from high school age through adulthood. 









Jay Watts is the director of athletics and varsity basketball coach at Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga, TN. Follow him on Twitter @gamedayeveryday

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