Justice served for female athletes
By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Rod Ohira
When Donnis Thompson came to the University of Hawai'i's Manoa campus from Chicago in 1961 to start a track and field team, the school's small-time athletic program was reflected in the appearance of the Lower Campus.
Klum Gym, an old swimming pool, a football field overgrown with weeds, and portable buildings for physical education classes and athletic offices were like islands in the quarry, which was basically a gravel parking lot for students.
The UH men's collegiate program, trying to sprout from club-level play barely had a pulse. And no one was thinking about starting a sports team for just women.
But Thompson — an outstanding athlete who today, at age 73, still wishes she had the opportunity to compete in volleyball, swimming and basketball in her prime instead of only track and field — knew there was potential for women in sports, if only given a chance.
"The feeling that women really don't want to participate, can't play, are too weak ... (was a) myth that had to be eliminated," Thompson said.
The door for gender equity opened when a congresswoman from Hawai'i wrote a 37-word amendment to the Higher Education Act in June 1972 known as Title IX. In 2002, it was renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act for its late author.
Mink found a strong local ally in Thompson, who was honored last night at a Hawai'i State Commission on the Status of Women reception to celebrate Women's History Month 2007 and the 35th anniversary of Title IX.
"Patsy would call me and get information on how things were going in terms of Title IX," recalled Thompson, who now resides in Palm Desert, Calif. "She was the spearhead, the one who wanted to see justice for the female. We worked very closely together during that time."
Thompson, UH's first full-time women's athletic director, was inducted this year into the Hawai'i Sports Hall of Fame. She fought hard to get UH women's sports off the ground and smiles proudly when reminded that the school's only national championship banners are for Wahine volleyball.
"We just didn't have enough money to do everything we wanted to do or could do," Thompson said. "We had the potential with Marga Stubblefield in golf and some swimmers and a diver, but didn't have the money."
Thompson was persistent in the face of resistance, repeatedly hearing the same answer to her requests for more funding.
"Rather than say we can't fund athletics, they would say: 'We can't hurt the men's program,' " Thompson said. "It's difficult to work where there is injustice. It's like Martin Luther King said: 'Injustice anywhere is an affront to justice everywhere.' "
Thompson recalled her first year's budget for women's sports was set at 1 percent of the school's athletic budget. "They doubled it to 2 percent the next year and said we were moving too fast," she said.
"We're talking about human beings; it isn't about men's or women's programs. It's about giving everybody an opportunity to reach their fullest potential."
Thompson, who is legally blind and undergoing dialysis, is pleased with the changes Title IX has brought.
"I'll tell you truthfully, there's no sport that I could not have participated in," she said. "I was an outstanding athlete but I didn't have the opportunity and that's the reason I had such zest to see that other women got opportunities."
Athletic trainer Melody Toth, who will retire in August after three decades at UH, saw the development of what Thompson started.
Thompson asked why not — rather than dwelling on the "whys" tied to the lack of women's sports — in her pursuit of fairness and equal opportunity, said Toth.
Reach Rod Ohira at firstname.lastname@example.org.