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By Gary Brown
Donna Lopiano, a steadfast proponent of equality and fairness in sports, has been selected to receive the NCAA President’s Gerald R. Ford Award at the 2013 NCAA Convention.
Lopiano, an educator, former coach, longtime director of women’s athletics at the University of Texas at Austin and former chief executive officer of the Women’s Sports Foundation, has devoted more than four decades advocating for equality in college athletics, particularly on behalf of increased opportunities for women.
“There’s no better representative of equality and inclusion in sports than Donna Lopiano,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert, who will present the Ford Award to Lopiano during the Convention’s opening business session Jan. 17 in Grapevine, Texas.
“She has worked tirelessly on behalf of all student-athletes and has been a staunch supporter of the collegiate model,” Emmert said. “While she tends to be labeled primarily as a women’s sports advocate for the positive difference she has made in that arena over time, Donna has in fact fought for equality and fairness for all student-athletes in her many roles. That is why she is so deserving of this award.”
The Ford Award, named in recognition of Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States and a member of two national-championship football teams at the University of Michigan, honors an individual who has provided significant leadership as an advocate for intercollegiate athletics over the course of his or her career. It was established in 2004 by the late NCAA President Myles Brand and was first awarded to former Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh. Tennessee women’s basketball coach emeritus Pat Summitt was last year’s recipient.
“I’ve been fortunate to have so many positive influences in my life,” Lopiano said. “I’m a big believer in taking the best from whomever you meet and admire along the way. There aren’t just one or two people in my life; I can name 20 – professors who’ve made me think differently; people who’ve shown me how to lead by their example. In that respect I’ve been very privileged through the years.”
As a student-athlete at Southern Connecticut State University, Lopiano played softball, basketball, volleyball and field hockey and participated in 26 national championships. She graduated in 1968 and went on to earn a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Southern California. She began her professional career at Brooklyn College, where she was an assistant athletics director and coach of softball, women’s basketball, and men’s and women’s volleyball.
Lopiano made her mark in athletics administration as the first athletics director for women’s sports at Texas, a post she held from 1975 through 1992. She constructed what many believed at that time to be the premier women’s athletics program. Lopiano grew an initial budget of $57,000 in 1975 to more than $4 million with 34 endowed academic scholarships for student-athletes in 1992.
Texas women’s teams won 18 national championships in six sports and produced 51 individual champions as well.
“My time at Texas was a grand adventure,” Lopiano said. “It was an institution with resources that was committed to doing something with women’s sports at a time when no one else was doing it. It was a storybook 18 years.”
The role Lopiano may be noted for most, though, came when she left Texas for the top post at the Women’s Sports Foundation. Created in 1974 by tennis legend Billie Jean King, the WSF remains dedicated to advancing the lives of girls and women through sports and physical activity.
Under Lopiano, the Foundation flourished with an endowment that expanded from $1 million to $4 million and annual revenues that grew from $1 million to $10 million. Lopiano was the driving force behind the Foundation’s award-winning GoGirlGo! educational curriculum that since 2001 has influenced more than 625,000 girls about healthy lifestyle choices.
“I had always been an advocate, and going to the Women’s Sports Foundation enabled me to use what I’m good at,” Lopiano said. “I’m a data nut and I’ve always enjoyed arguing points being a communicator. It was a tremendous experience.”
Lopiano’s advocacy put her in some unusual circumstances at times. She was a central figure in fact during the time the NCAA began sponsoring championships in women’s sports in the early 1980s. In addition to her duties at Texas, Lopiano also was the last sitting president of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), which conducted championships and governed women’s intercollegiate athletics from 1971 to 1982.
The NCAA’s adoption of a governance plan at the 1981 Convention that incorporated women’s sports into the fabric of the Association essentially ended the AIAW, which some women’s sports advocates, including Lopiano, didn’t support. The AIAW even sued the NCAA, alleging antitrust violations, but ultimately lost the case.
But Lopiano continued to work within the new NCAA governance structure, serving on a number of committees and panels, including the groundbreaking Gender Equity Task Force in the early1990s, which coined the first definition of gender equity in sports as one gender’s teams being willing to accept the operating conditions of the other’s in the same program.
Lopiano remains outspoken on Title IX matters (several times before Congress), emphasizing that compliance with the law shouldn’t come at the expense of eliminating men’s sports. Even after leaving the Women’s Sports Foundation in 2007, Lopiano continued her equity advocacy by founding a consulting firm called Sports Management Resources, which helps athletics directors solve integrity, equity, growth and development challenges in their respective athletics programs. Christine Grant, Connee Zotos and Don Sabo are the firm’s senior consultants.
“It’s rewarding work,” said Lopiano, who serves as president of the firm. “Though we’ve all done this type of work before, each situation is different and the people you work with are different. It’s something you can do only once you have acquired a base of experience that lets you evaluate situations more clearly without panicking.”
While she said plenty of work remains regarding equity in college sports, Lopiano praised NCAA leadership for demanding equity and inclusion as attributes of the Association. She said she particularly appreciates the emphasis on academics and its relationship to participation at the most basic level in terms of teaching young people.
“The three most important things when you go to college and you’re an athlete are developing to your full potential academically, as a person and as a player,” Lopiano said. “And if you don’t do all three of those and if the organization doesn’t have penalties in place when you don’t do all three of those, then kids don’t learn. It’s like parenting – you have to give a time out when the report card is bad. I credit Myles Brand and others for establishing the Academic Performance Program and shaping it to build academic success for student-athletes.”
Lopiano is an academician in her own right. She continues to serve as a visiting or adjunct professor, having taught courses in amateur sports governance at several campuses, including Columbia, New York University, Massachusetts and her alma mater Southern Connecticut State over the years.
NCAA President Emmert called Lopiano “a true force for change,” noting her positive influence, even during times of conflict.
“I suppose some people might consider it curious that the NCAA is giving one of its most prestigious awards to a person who fought against the Association for a time many years ago,” Emmert said. “But you can’t evaluate the landscape of college sports today – particularly the evolution of women’s sports – without noting the positive influence of people like Donna Lopiano. She has sustained her advocacy in ways that have allowed the Association to advance collectively, all to the benefit of student-athletes and intercollegiate athletics.”
Lopiano said even she was caught off guard when she was contacted about receiving the Ford Award.
“It’s like the first time you’re called for a hall of fame, and you’re like, no, no, no, I’m not done yet!” she said. “It’s one of the interesting parts of these types of awards – you end up saying to yourself, ‘Yes, it has been a long time.’ Perhaps it’s better to couch it as ‘sustained excellence’ rather than just having hung around forever!”