By Tom Rietmann | June 7, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS -- The date was June 3, 2000, and spectators packed the Fieldhouse for the first regular-season game in Indiana Fever franchise history. The fans came to welcome the arrival of women's professional basketball in the state. And they came to celebrate.
Kelly Krauskopf, the Fever's chief operating officer who had built the first team, wanted to celebrate with those fans. But that was hard to do with tears in her eyes. As time neared for her to go out on the floor for a pregame ceremony, she found herself standing next to former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh and was overcome with emotion.
All she could think about was the momentous role that Bayh had played in making that day possible for the team and herself.
Bayh is often referred to as the “father of Title IX.” He represented Indiana in the U.S. Senate from 1962 to '80 and co-authored the landmark legislation known as Title IX to the Higher Education Act. Before that document was signed into law on June 23, 1972, women were often denied equal access to many college academic programs and shut out from equal participation in sports.
Bayh had purchased the Fever's 5,500th season ticket in 2000 -- the one that officially secured a WNBA expansion franchise for Indy. The team wanted to honor him.
“We hadn't walked out yet but were looking up in the arena,” Krauskopf, who is in her 13th season as the Fever's COO and general manager, remembered this week. “I said to him, 'Look at this place. This is unbelievable. Here we are in Indiana, getting ready to play the first WNBA game, and I can tell you that my career wouldn't be here without the legislation that you wrote.'
“He said, 'When I meet young women and see this type of thing (the packed arena), I realize the impact (of Title IX).' For that moment, I could see it was really meaningful to him. He just kind of had big tears in his eyes. And then I did, too. And then we walked out on the court.”
Krauskopf paused. “It was that snapshot moment that I will always remember,” she said. “I remember thinking, 'Here I am standing next to the man who helped script this wonderful opportunity.' ''
On June 21, the 84-year-old Bayh will make a return trip to Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Fever and Indiana Humanities will honor him again, along with other women's sports trailblazers and celebrities, as part of ceremonies marking the 40th anniversary of Title IX.
Before the Fever meets the Connecticut Sun that night, there also will be a panel discussion of how Title IX legislation dramatically altered the landscape of women's educational and athletic opportunities, leading to the growth that made entities like the WNBA possible.
Bayh, who lives near Washington D.C. with his wife Kitty, looks forward to the trip.
“Obviously, this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart,” he said during a telephone conversation with FeverBasketball.com, adding that he still considers Indiana “to be God's country.”
Bayh remains a Fever fan, noting he is “proud of the team.” And he recalled purchasing the significant 5,500th ticket in 2000.
“I'm proud of that,” he said. “It was symbolic. Obviously, since I'm not a player or manager, I'm proud to support those who do make it possible for the rest of us to enjoy the sport. I'm glad we've got a franchise, and I appreciate the others who make it possible.”
Birch Evans Bayh Jr. grew up near Terre Haute, Ind., with a big love of sports, even though his rural high school had no organized athletics for boys or girls. Bayh's father was the basketball coach and first athletic director at what is now Indiana State, and Birch Jr. went on to play baseball and box as an undergrad at Purdue University. He was also a strong student who would later earn his law degree from Indiana University and serve as Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives.
But as a youngster, Bayh said, “I was not as much attuned to women's athletics as I became later on.”
Two people played major parts in making Bayh take notice of inequities facing girls and women in both education and athletics. The first was his father, who left his position at Indiana State to become director of physical education for the Washington D.C. public schools. The other person was his late wife, Marvella.
Bayh said his father would be proud to see that women in athletics are now participating on a more even playing field.
“He practiced what he preached,” Bayh said. “I remember us having breakfast one morning, and we asked him what he was going to do that day. And he said, 'Today I'm going to testify before Congress.' We said, 'What are you going to tell them?' He said, 'I'm going to tell them that we need to appropriate money so little girls can have physical education just like little boys. And if they ask why, I'm going to say little girls need strong bodies to carry their minds around just like little boys do.' ”
Marrying Marvella brought more clarity for Bayh in his beliefs on equality for women. Marvella, a brilliant woman who helped Bayh in his political career until her death from cancer in 1979, couldn't enroll in the college she most wanted to attend. State laws before 1970 wouldn't allow women at the University of Virginia.
“I think the value of Title IX athletically is the tip of the iceberg,” said Bayh, who has credited Marvella's experiences and influence in his successful push for the legislation. “The greatest benefit comes from providing equal educational opportunity, academic opportunity. Only a small percentage of the girls -- or boys, for that matter -- have the physical talent that makes it possible for them to participate in athletics. But they all have minds.
“I remember when Marvella said, 'Birch, you can't afford to ignore the brainpower of 53 percent of the American people.' ”
Years before that, after his mother had died and his father was sent overseas during World War II, a teenaged Bayh went to live on his grandparents' farm near Terre Haute. That's where another strong woman, his grandmother Kate Hollingsworth, played a different sort of part in forming his opinions.
“I really was not aware of discrimination against women because my grandmother's role in making decisions on our farm was just as important as (his grandfather's),” Bayh said.
Bayh, laughing lightly, recalled one of his grandmother's decisions. “I know she stood up to (his grandfather) when he didn't want me to have a patch of tomatoes,” he said. “She said, 'John, if the boy wants tomatoes, he's going to have tomatoes.' The answer was 'Yes, Kate.' ”
Bayh again emphasized the importance of Title IX as an educational, as well as athletics-related, reform.
“It's impossible for me to separate athletics out of overall equality for women,” Bayh said. “Grandmother never played on the court or was involved in athletics at all. But she was a symbol of equality for women in my mind, which carried over into athletics.”
Today, as Bayh reflects on the sweeping and positive changes produced in 40 years under Title IX, he admits the enormity of it has surprised him.
“I wanted to make a difference with my life; both my wife Marvella and I wanted to make a difference,” he said. “And my wife Kitty, she gave me a graduate degree of what it's like to be a woman in a man's world at the time before full equality was available. So I got a double barrel of it.
“I just feel very fortunate to have been there and played a small role,” Bayh said. “The ones who make Title IX work is not the guy who wrote the legislation, but the women and the girls who are on the playing field.”
Still, for women such as Kelly Krauskopf, that man who wrote the legislation remains an integral figure in making things right for females in all levels of sports, from players to coaches to administrators. Krauskopf, first as a WNBA leader and now as the Fever chief, has seen the women's professional league grow to unprecedented heights in large part because of Title IX opportunities afforded earlier to student-athletes.
Also, Krauskopf remains proud of her days as a basketball player at Stephen F. Austin and Texas A&M, where she was a member of programs funded during the first decade of Title IX.
“It's special,” Krauskopf said about the reform, “in the sense that girls were no longer told no, they can't play. I never knew what that felt like.”
And Bayh led the way in making that possible.