Q-and-A: Leslie Leslie, on growing up a Title IX baby, teaching today’s kids, and, good gracious, still fighting for what’s right

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(Michael Owen Baker/Daily News Staff Photographer)
Lisa Leslie gives a kiss to her daughter, Lauren Lockwood, 5, while designing a Girl Scout patch in her Calabasas home on Thursday to honor the Girl Scouts’ 100th anniversary. Leslie is a former Girl Scout and the limited edition patch she designed will be auctioned off on eBay July 5-15 with proceeds benefitting the Girl Scouts.

Lisa Leslie turns 40 on July 7, and as much as she may dread the thought, there’s significance of her date of birth.

It came two weeks after the Title IX bill was signed into law in 1972, and six days after it took effect.

Blessed with height and athletic skills is one thing. But timing is important as well.

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The former WNBA Sparks and USC star out of Morningside High doesn’t feel entitled, though. Even though ESPN just included her in the top five of the most influential female athletes of the last 40 years, Leslie remains a torch bearer for all that’s right with sports, not just equal rights.

It’s like the title of her 2009 autobiography, written with Larry Burnett: “Don’t Let the Lipstick Fool You: The Making of a Champion.” She knows where’s she’s been and what she needs to do to go forward.

As today marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX signature from President Nixon, we caught up with the four-time Olympic gold-medal winner at her basketball academy inside the Westwood Recreation Center not far from the UCLA campus to talk about how she puts this monumental occasion into context, and intends to play it forward, while she’s living in Calabasas and raising two small children with her husband Michael Lockwood :

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Q: How do you refer to yourself in regards to this occasion: A Title IX baby? First daughter? Suffragette?

A: I’ve called myself a Title IX baby – but I’ve been called a lot of things (laughing). To be one of the first children of Title IX, an amazing piece of legislation, has really changed my life and created the path I’ve gone down. It’s sad to think of where I’d be without sports – not just success on the court, but the person I’ve become, from competition, getting through hard times, when things don’t go your way, getting along with other people, it’s made me a much better person. A good person.

Q: So it’s you, and Mia Hamm and also Summer Sanders who were born right around the Title IX birth. Olympic champions, great role models. What great company you have there.

A: All three of us are moms, too. We probably talk more about being a mommy than we talk about sports and what we’ve done.

Q: So is it true that when you were in the ninth grade at Morningside High you read about Title IX in a text book? What did that mean to you then? Did you have a concept of what it was all about?


A: I remember feeling like, ‘wow, if this didn’t exist, we couldn’t play?’ It was shocking. I’d only been into sports a few years at that point, starting with the seventh grade. I guess it made me realize how much of a privilege it was.

But you know what – it’s almost like girls are brainwashed because we are made to feel as if: ‘You better be thankful that you can play’ and ‘this is a privilege, you don’t always get to do this.’ We believed it! That got me so much on track to focus on school – if you don’t get your grades up, you can’t play. There were all these things we were told, that girls, and then women, we stay so disciplined to keep our opportunity and if for any reason these people on Capitol Hill don’t vote to keep this alive, it’s over. That somehow gave me a real sense of urgency.

I felt like every opportunity, it’s my moment to be a role model, to spread the word, to win over men and make them want to watch girls basketball, or see that it doesn’t have to be just 200 people in the stands at a girls high school game and 2,000 at a boy’s game. A lot of the sports are imbalanced that way. But we feel like it’s always going up a hill for us, and the men are always at the top, up there playing, taking it seriously, but then they blow it off, spend their money, do drugs sometimes, get in trouble ….

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I’m not saying they didn’t fight hard to get there, but it’s a given they’re already there. The platform is sitting there. I’m not trying to be male-bashing here. I’m not a feminist – although I’m not sure what that word even means, I have to look it up, because I know what they look and sound like, but I don’t know if I am one yet – and I’m not mad at the men for this situation.

In some ways, we as women have to have this dichotomy of ‘be feminine’ and ‘represent the sport’ but ‘don’t get in trouble’ and ‘don’t go too far.’

I think about this: For all I’ve done in sports, if I did something that’s really crazy – something like cussing someone out or slapping someone and it gets all over YouTube – I’d get more publicity than I’ve ever got in my whole (sports) career.

Q: Do women get few chances to redeem themselves from getting into trouble then men do? Do they have to be more perfect for fear of not being able to get the chance to make good on a mistake?

A: That part is more subjective. The American public I find to be very forgiving. We appreciate the underdog, and they’d say, ‘Well, she’s never done something like this before, something must have really pissed her off.’ (laughing). I know I’ve never been in trouble – never been in a police car, never did drugs, never drunk – I won’t do them because I’m scared to even get near any of that. God forbid.

We’re just nervous about the opportunities that we have, and thankful at the same time, so when people talk about being a pioneer in a sport, I know so many women came before me and gave us these opportunities, but I do feel like I’m a torch carrier. And when you’re carrying that torch, you’ve got to stand up straight. Keep your head up high. Do the right things.

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Q: You’re doing all that right here with these kids you have in your academy. You’ve got up to 40 kids a session, 8 to 17 year olds who can not just look up to you – aside from being 6-feet-5 – but also learn from you. Do you get a sense they know, maybe not how lucky they are that Title IX is in place and has been for so long, but how cool this is that it’s all normal for them. Equality is a given for them. They don’t necessarily have to keep looking over their shoulder worrying about messing up an opportunity as much as maybe you felt you did.

A: We’re hoping. Especially with my academy, boys and girls, they just play and they go – and I see that by having my own daughter and son. I’m so conscious of how double standards start at 2 and 5. I let my son (who just turned 2) climb around, things I wouldn’t let my daughter do back then. It’s just wrong! But we live and learn, you know better, you do better. Really, I’m not mad. I’m a very happy person for my space and my place in history what it is.

Q: Do you need to teach kids today about Title IX and what it’s been about through your history?

A: Absolutely. In fact, that’s a topic for our leadership talk on the Title IX anniversary. Our kids sit and listen to speakers on various topics. For example, last week we had a representative with New York Life for the kids to see how to take care of money. You show them how you can have four jars. You can put some money in this one to pay tithing, or whatever people believe in. Another jar is for saving. Another jar is what you use now. And the fourth jar is for a donation. We try to bring it to life about you can’t just live for today. You have to think about your future. Even when I retired at 36, when you’re a kid, that sounds ancient, but the concept of savings was great for them. They asked a lot of great questions. We asked them: Is a credit card money? And some would scream: Yes! Uh, no. Is a check book money? And they’d scream: Yes! Uh, no. Does the check book mean you have money? Uh, no. I’ve covered topics like teamwork, togetherness, family. So this is a great history lesson.

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Credit: Vince Bucci/Getty Images Entertainment
Billie Jean King shakes hands with Lisa Leslie inside the VIP reception for The Billies presented by The Women’s Sports Foundation at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in 2007 in Beverly Hills.

Q: You are part of that history – on ESPN’s list of the 40 women who made the most impact in the 40 years of Title IX.

A: What an honor. I’m very happy and humbled by the results of that. Awesome. I need to celebrate that.

Q: You’ve been involved in playing it forward not just on the elementary kids level but also on the college level. How do you help keep Title IX alive on the college level?

A: There’s a great program, the Capital One Cup, and Capital One has been one of the first to step up to the plate to offer in an equal way a trophy for the best men’s and womens’ team, equal amount of money — $200,000 – that goes toward grad school. I love the fact we have the Cup because it’s all about bragging rights. I’m always following USC and we could be right there, but then UCLA jumps up there. Stanford has been dominant. North Carolina, Nebraska has been there. To have that money to further their education really says this is about being a student athlete. That’s why I support it so much, because you never know how long your sports career will last. Hopefully, your brain career is what’s going to carry you. That’s always important to me and they did the best job in providing this beautiful trophy, the fact they both get the exact thing, our advisory board is great, we get to talk about it all the time, and I’m always pulling for the Trojans and the Pac-12.

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Q: Twenty years ago when you were at USC, there had to be things that still were not equal between the men’s and women’s programs.

A: Well, Marianne Stanley, my coach during my junior year, went back to the people at USC and asked for equal pay, the same that George Raveling was making as the men’s coach. We had just been to the Final Eight two years in a row. The men’s team might not have been to the playoffs in awhile. There was allegedly a previous conversation that it would be nice if they could pay them both equally. So when she got all these top recruits, when she went to ask, it wasn’t the case and she got fired.

So now Title IX was really in our faces. This whole thing was based on that exact law. So then Cheryl Miller became my coach my senior year, coach Stanley had lawsuit after lawsuit filed, it got really ugly. This was a real eye-opener for me. You’re really young but this is when I figured out that college is really a system, a business, not about the names on the backs of our jerseys. It’s about the entity.

Not that it’s wrong, but that’s where you have to fight to have your place as women having scholarships, it’s not just a handout. You have to fight to get your education, use your education, excel, get out in four years. We see in women’s athletics, maybe we get it a little bit more. The men may be one and done sometimes, without that same drive or maybe desperation to know when you sign that letter of intent, it’s not just party time. Speaking for the WNBA, about 99 percent of the players have college degrees, and some have graduate degrees.

Q: What other things at USC might have felt unequal to you – having to practice in another gym, maybe, or not getting the same equipment?

A: My boyfriend at the time played on the men’s team, so you know how close this was in my face. Of course, they got training table after every practice. We got a pregame meal. That’s it. They got new uniforms and shoes constantly. It’s all relative. Maybe some universities aren’t giving their teams the things that we got. When it’s the women, it always seemed to go back to: Be thankful for what you’ve got.

Q: Does this generation of kids you see need to take ownership in Title IX? It comes up every now and then, we want to change or add to it. How do they stay in contact with it?

A: We have to educate girls and boys who become the decision-makers later in life. I always feel – here I am going up a hill again – why is this something we have to keep fighting for? Why do we have to keep hoping everyone’s in agreement with the basic principles? Maybe we’re not at a wall anymore, and we’ve grown, but even in 1996, around the Olympics, Billie Jean King was telling us how we had to stand up for it because it might go away, and I’m not sure if it has to do when the Republicans or Democrats are in office, but it seems there’s a time every now and then where we’re asked to fly in and make something happen again. To me, it’s ‘Really? Are we going back to this again?’ It’s why the kids need to know about it, and it’s the part I don’t like, that we have to keep asking and fighting.

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Q: It seems to be all these moving parts to the law that change, having to do with TV money, cutting men’s programs that don’t produce income, which leads to cutting women’s programs, and then making things level again. They can lose the focus of what the true meaning of Title IX is about, so maybe that’s why it keeps coming up.

A: The hard part is that as times change, and media changes, and we evolve, and social media is added to all this, its growing and changing and things don’t look the same anymore. That can be difficult because as we get stuck on one thing, then what needs to added or taken away, but the core meaning and purpose of Title IX will never change. We need to find those equal grounds. It seems we’d be past this. I’m not sure if it’s more difficult, seeing this as an African-American woman, it’s almost like, ‘Good gracious! Are we still talking about this?’

So Title IX has been part of my career from ninth grade – that’s when women also finally got the 3-point line added to the game. That’s another opportunity. You think back to when the game was played on a half court, three players per side, not allowed to cross the line. When I was reading all this in ninth grade, I finally got it. Sports are bigger than me.

I could run down court and feel like it’s ‘Lisa Leslie this’ and ‘Lisa Leslie that,’ but I’ve never been that type of player. It’s always been about the fans, their support, my appreciation for them coming, leaving every Sparks game slapping hands, signing autographs, never telling a person no.

To me, that was my responsibility. Maybe it was the fact I had a really good history teacher. It changed my life.

== More:
== On the Lisa Leslie Basketball and Leadership Academy (linked here)
== The ESPNW biography of Leslie, honoring her as the No. 5 athlete of the last 40 years in women’s sports (linked here).

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  • Greg Macedo

    Why wasn’t Susyn Waldman in the top ten women sports broadcasters? The only female baseball play by play and for the high pressure, huge market Yankees This was a major oversight