Rick Cleveland

Ole Miss softball embodies Mississippi’s progress in women’s athletics

Ole Miss’ Brittany Finney, right, is congratulated by coach Mike Smith following her two-run home run against North Carolina during the NCAA Regional in Oxford on Sunday.
Ole Miss’ Brittany Finney, right, is congratulated by coach Mike Smith following her two-run home run against North Carolina during the NCAA Regional in Oxford on Sunday. AP

We are nearing the halfway point of 2017. Interesting to note, in Mississippi sports these first five months, women have provided the most meaningful and poignant success stories, the most lasting memories.

First, we had the Mississippi State basketball women, shooting, rebounding and guarding their way to the national championship game at Dallas. En route, the Lady Bulldogs beat the nation's best player, the nation's most talented team and the most dominant program in the history of women's basketball. They captured the hearts of Mississippians, no matter school loyalty.

And now the Ole Miss softball women have come out of virtually nowhere to win the SEC Tournament championship and an NCAA regional, winning seven straight games against some of the best competition in the land.

Before this season, Ole Miss softball was played in a virtually empty facility even though there was no charge for tickets. This past weekend, the Lady Rebels won three straight games in a sold out stadium with hundreds more clamoring for tickets.

Everyone loves a winner, no matter the sport or the gender. It helps when the players play hard, do the little things right, smile a lot and seem to be having a ball while they vanquish yet another opponent.

This brings to mind the fact that when my sports writing career began, women didn't have the opportunity to do what they are doing now. The NCAA didn't sponsor women's basketball, much less women's softball. There was scant opportunity for women athletes at all.

The two biggest changes in Mississippi sports during my half century of sports reporting: One, widespread integration, and, two, the growth of women's sports.

Just a half century ago, in Mississippi, high school girls basketball was played mostly at small-town schools and certainly not all of those. Girls softball, when played much at all, was played in recreation leagues. There was no chance, at all, for a girl to earn a college scholarship playing sports in Mississippi.

Young people should know this history. These opportunities for women athletes are relatively new.

It all changed, of course, with Title IX of the Education Amendments act of 1972. Before that, in virtually every area of athletics, women faced discrimination.

Quick story: I was working as a sports writer for the Hattiesburg American when, shortly after the amendment passed, the Department of Health Education and Welfare dispatched someone to the University of Southern Mississippi to speak on what Title IX would mean. The woman from HEW told those in attendance that it simply meant that, where education was concerned, women would have the same opportunities as men. That Hattiesburg High and USM, as well as public schools across Mississippi and the country, would have to offer female students the same opportunities as males.

It'll never happen, I said under my breath.

The guy sitting next to me said, “Why not?”

And I said that athletic departments were barely making budget as it was, and could never afford to sponsor so many more sports teams, much less scholarships.

“Obviously,” the guy said, “You've never had a daughter.”

He had four. One of them became Hattiesburg High's first female point guard — and a good one.

I think back to that day every time I watch women playing sports, even when they don't play as well — or win as much — as these 2017 Mississippi State basketball women or the Ole Miss softball Lady Rebels.

That said, those two teams, especially, have been such a joy to watch.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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