Champions: Judy Sweet, collegiate trailblazer
It was a roll of the dice for the Milwaukee native, who was leaving a teaching job at the University of Arizona and heading to San Diego with no job prospects and few connections. But the day before the school year was to begin, she landed an interview at Kearny High School, located just a few blocks from her newly rented apartment. The principal took one look at the fresh-faced Midwesterner and hired her on the spot — though not for the job advertised.
“I got a call for a long-term substitute teaching position, but when I walked into the principal’s office and introduced myself, he said I was the new modern dance teacher,” Sweet recalled with a laugh.
There was one small problem. Sweet, who had earned her master’s degree in education from Arizona and was a physical education and math major at the University of Wisconsin, had never taught high school, much less modern dance.
“I thought maybe he was talking to someone else in the room,” Sweet said. “But nevertheless, I became the modern dance teacher. It was a good lesson that you can do anything if you have to.”
While Sweet hastily boned up on the particulars of a high school dance class curriculum, she had no inkling that it was the break of a lifetime — and the start of her remarkable career as a true trailblazer for women in sports. It’s a journey that has taken her from her humble high school teaching days to a pioneering career at the University of California, San Diego, over to the conference rooms at the NCAA and in front of Congress. Over the course of her career spanning from the mid-1970s to today, Sweet has developed a reputation as the conscience of college sports through her work as a tireless defender of Title IX and other diversity issues.
“Judy is one of a handful of women who took it upon themselves to remind people on a daily basis and at every opportunity that if intercollegiate athletics is valuable because it enhances some life lessons, then that can’t be true just for men, but also for women,” said Wally Renfro, NCAA vice president and chief policy officer. “Equal rights in sports was a big hill to climb when Title IX came in, and she is one of the people who has spent her career making sure that hill got climbed.”
Her style is a blend of unmistakable calm, measure and determination, qualities that have allowed Sweet to put together a career of firsts. She was the first female athletic director to run both the men’s and women’s programs at UC San Diego, where she began her career in 1973, after spending that year teaching dance at Kearny High. Her initial job at the university was as assistant athletic director and supervisor of physical education. Two years later, she was named athletic director.
She was 27 years old, and with the new job, she was too consumed by its immediate challenges to even consider what future successes could be ahead.
In 1975, UC San Diego had a shoestring athletic budget of just $90,000, not to mention gross financial and scheduling inequities between its men’s and women’s sports. The women’s basketball program had a total budget of $1,000 compared with $10,000 for the men’s team. The women’s team played a limited schedule in a local community college league while the men’s team played a full schedule against four-year schools.
“It was quite obvious that needed to change,” Sweet said. “The whole athletic department was grossly underfunded.”
She immediately began to close the gap between the men’s and women’s programs, backed by the federal Title IX legislation that was passed into law in 1972. She shifted more funding to women’s sports, rearranged practice schedules that had always given the men’s programs prime-time access, and convinced her trustees that women’s sports deserved equal funding and support as men’s programs.
Predictably, the decisions didn’t sit well with some of the male coaches long used to having things their way.
“It wasn’t easy,” Sweet said. “Several male coaches whose programs had received a disparate amount of resources and attention didn’t like the fact that I was changing the landscape to make things more gender equal. There were many times when we would disagree when I would suggest we make a decision based on the best interests of all student athletes.”
But Sweet prevailed, quietly but firmly battling against gender discrimination, a fight she had grown familiar with while growing up in Milwaukee.
|From the Auburn Opelika Touchdown Club to NACDA, Sweet has been widely recognized for her service to collegiate athletics.
“I have loved sports all of my life, but I never had the opportunity to play on a high school or college team because there weren’t any,” Sweet said. “We had girls’ athletic associations, which amounted to sports days where you had no formal coaching and you’d go mix with girls in other schools and then have punch and cookies. That was all that was available.”
As Sweet began her overhaul of UC San Diego’s athletic department, she also earned her MBA, bolstering her qualifications on the business and administrative side of her job. Despite her steady run of success, she always felt the burden that came with blazing a trail for women athletic administrators.
“I felt a responsibility that I had to be true to my commitment and couldn’t be scared away by individuals who wanted me to fail,” Sweet said. “If I had failed, it would have been very easy for other universities to say, ‘That is why we can’t hire other women.’ I absolutely felt that pressure.”
Her ability to navigate both the financial aspects of college athletics and gender-equity issues soon became clear to the NCAA.
In 1981, a local NCAA council nominated her to serve on the NCAA communications committee. Other appointments followed, and from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, Sweet served on some 20 NCAA committees and gained a firm grasp on virtually every issue confronting the NCAA.
Her efforts at consensus-building also began being noticed by others.
“I have never seen anyone like Judy who can take a committee and its various points of view and arrive at a consensus,” said Charlotte West, former associate athletics director at Southern Illinois University who worked on various NCAA committees with Sweet.
By the late 1980s, Sweet was chairing key NCAA committees and drawing national attention both inside and outside the NCAA. In 1989, she became the first woman to serve as secretary treasurer for the NCAA, a move that raised eyebrows within the male-dominated NCAA hierarchy.
|In addition to her stewardship at the NCAA, Sweet was also a leader in groups for athletic directors and for women administrators.
Unlike today’s NCAA structure, in which the president’s title marks the top staff job, in the early 1990s it was the executive director who was at the top of the organization. Dick Schultz held that executive director job during Sweet’s tenure as president. Still, as president, she had tremendous influence and reach within the organization. The president was responsible for presiding over the NCAA annual convention as well as serving as a chair of the powerful NCAA Executive Committee and the NCAA Council.
Equally groundbreaking as her gender was that the newly nominated, reform-minded NCAA president came from a Division III school, the land of no scholarships, no television money and miniscule budgets.
“To a lot of people, it was more startling that a Division III administrator was elected as NCAA president rather than a woman,” Sweet said. “But I always tried to look at what was best for all divisions. Anyone who had an issue with my gender or what division I came from, that was their issue. I did not let it become my issue.”
But the letters and public opinion of protest regarding her role as NCAA president still ring as loudly for Sweet today as they did when she was elected. She cites a 1991 column penned by the late Furman Bisher, former sports editor of the then Atlanta Journal, who reportedly called Sweet’s appointment as NCAA president “pure tokenism. Like having a debutante as head of the National Mule Skinners Assn.”
“There were people who were supportive,” Sweet said, “but it was amazing to me at the number of negative, hateful letters I received.”
A key ally for Sweet was Wilford Bailey, former president of Auburn University who preceded Sweet as NCAA president, and Christine Grant, former athletic director for women’s sports at the University of Iowa.
“I watched, listened and learned in terms of how they handled themselves in difficult situations,” Sweet said.
Sweet stayed focused on her role during those two years. Among her accomplishments was her stalwart ability to address gender-equity issues not just within the NCAA, but also while stressing the balance between student and athlete.
“One of her greatest accomplishments is setting the tone for female leadership in the NCAA, which she did brilliantly,” Grant said. “She is a strong believer in education and sports. But it’s not that she is opposed to bringing in revenue. Every athletic director is concerned with that. But her top priority is the education of the student athlete.”
|Sweet’s tenure as UC San Diego athletic director began in 1975 and included 26 NCAA championships and the 1998 Directors’ Cup from NACDA. She stepped down in 1999.
“She was clearly a pioneer,” said Tom Jernstedt, former executive vice president of the NCAA who worked closely with Sweet. “Her overall contributions during some challenging years were extraordinary. She always understood the issues and was sensitive to the political views of all the membership.”
Her leadership over the NCAA membership proved so effective that when her term expired in 1993, she continued to lead key committees, including chair of the NCAA revenue distribution committee, maintaining her low-key but influential approach.
So cool under pressure was Sweet that even congressional committees could not shake her ability to defend Title IX.
“I remember when she was testifying before Congress, and she got cut off and interrupted as they tried to throw her off her game,” said Carol Stiff, vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN, who has dealt with Sweet over various television negotiations. “But she stayed very calm and just eloquently spoke as an advocate for change.”
Sweet continued to serve as athletic director at UC San Diego after her term as president of the NCAA expired in 1993, but by 1999, she was ready for a change and resigned her post.
“I just thought I needed to do something different,” Sweet said. “It’s good for organizations to have change at the top and allow for different approaches.”
Her legacy of success and leadership was defined by a combined 26 NCAA national championships won by men’s and women’s teams. The school in 1998 won the coveted Directors’ Cup awarded by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, honoring the most successful sports program from each of the three NCAA divisions.
In 2001, Sweet shelved a planned sabbatical and left San Diego to take a job with the NCAA, where she worked as senior vice president for championships and education services.
“It was a great professional opportunity, but the trade-off was that I had to move to Indianapolis,” Sweet said.
It was a drastic change not just in geography from her 25 years spent in Southern California, but also in job description. She was moving from a small-college atmosphere to the bureaucratic NCAA. There, she continued to defend Title IX, which was under attack from the Bush administration. She also ran men’s and women’s championships.
“Institutions were dropping men’s sports in favor of women’s sports, but it was about creating opportunities,” Sweet said. “There were some who felt Title IX was responsible, but they underestimated the number of soccer moms and dads who wanted their daughters to have the same opportunities as their sons.”
Sweet, 64, left the NCAA in 2006 and returned to San Diego, where she now works as co-director of the Alliance of Women Coaches (see related story) and is a gender equity and Title IX consultant to other universities. It’s a continuation of Sweet’s commitment to defending women’s collegiate sports. In so doing, she’s helped thousands of female athletes receive the same rights as male athletes. She also has paved the way for a generation of female sports administrators.
“Judy was and still is vigilant about Title IX,” Renfro said. “She will not tolerate anything that diminishes the impact.”
Nor is Sweet content to stand pat on her trailblazing in collegiate athletics. What matters more to her is that others follow behind her pioneering career.
“Being elected as the first female president of the NCAA was a matter of timing, and I am grateful,” she said. “But the most important thing is not being the last.”