Flagrant Foul: Benching Teen Moms Before Title IX

As a high schooler and new mom, Jane Rubel didn’t consider herself a feminist. She just knew that if husbands and fathers were eligible to play high school basketball, she should have been, too.

Britni de la Cretaz | Longreads | August 2019 | 27 minutes (6,922 words)

Before the pregnancy, before the ineligibility, and before the lawsuit, Jane Christoffer was one of the best basketball players in the basketball-loving state of Iowa. As a freshman in 1968–69 at Ruthven Consolidated High School, a school of just 106 students located in northwest Iowa, the 5-foot-11 Christoffer averaged 35 points per game, leading Ruthven to the state tournament for the first time in more than a decade. She upped her scoring average the next season to 47 points, and was named third team all-state, which prompted Richard Barber, her coach at Ruthven, to say, “Jane’s as good a player as we’ve had in the 20 years I’ve been here.”

What happened next, though, paved the way for an organic civil rights movement within the Corn State, shattering the illusion of “farm-girl femininity” that had long defined its prep athletics. We often imagine activists as those who are outraged enough to push for structural change, but movements don’t have a rule book. After Christoffer got married, taking the last name Rubel, and gave birth to a daughter in 1970, the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union (IGHSAU) denied her eligibility to play basketball her senior year. Though she sued the organization the next fall, claiming it had infringed upon her rights, she didn’t intend to make a statement. Now known as Jane Rubel, she didn’t consider herself an outlier or a feminist. Yet it’s exactly people like her who sometimes find themselves at the forefront of social change.

She wasn’t alone: To some, E. Wayne Cooley, the IGHSAU’s executive secretary, was an advocate in the world of Iowa girls’ basketball. A feminist, even. To Rubel, though, Cooley was the lone person upholding her ban. A person who believed married women belonged in the home. “I don’t think he was promoting women at all,” she said in 2011, 40 years after the fact. “I think … maybe he had his own agenda.”

As Rubel told the Des Moines Register soon after she filed her lawsuit, “A Russian girl who is married and the mother of three took gold medals at the last Olympics — that proves something.”

***

Rubel has lived much of her entire life within a 12-mile radius. Her family moved to Ruthven when she was 10, and she still lives in what she calls a “typical small, rural town; a little bedroom town.” I’d spent nearly three months attempting to contact Rubel through various channels, after having listened to an hour-long audio interview she’d given in 2011, in which she’d been a woman of few words, someone a bit baffled as to why anyone might find her story interesting. Just when I’d given up, an email hit my inbox: “I am the Jane Rubel you’ve been looking for.” I called her one afternoon in July to talk about the lawsuit, and the Rubel I spoke with was more personable than she’d seemed on tape — happy to chat and happy to be remembered.

Ever since the sport took hold in Iowa in the early 1900s, the state has had a strong tradition of girls’ basketball — it was even once referred to as the “capital of women’s basketball.” Prior to the passing of Title IX in 1972, of the nearly 300,000 American girls that played high school sports, 20 percent were Iowans, of whom almost half played basketball. As explained in Shelley Lucas’s 2005 paper Cornography: Selling Women’s Professional Basketball in a Girls’ Basketball State, Iowans turned out in droves for girls’ basketball games — one student told Sports Illustrated in 1969 that “it’s kind of sad … everybody comes to see the girls play and then leaves when the boys come on.” Because sports was nearly exclusively dominated by men, the national media developed a handy caricature of Iowa women — one that combined femininity and athleticism — that could explain why they liked sports. According to the Boston Globe, “The Bostonian’s mental picture of an Iowa coed shows a girl, blonde and blue-eyed, buxom and strong enough to throw a heifer from the pasture into the bin of surplus oats.”

This character was further enhanced by the state’s preferred style of play — six-on-six basketball, a half-court game that began in 1934 and lasted until 1993, when it was abolished in favor of full-court, five-on-five style.

Six-on-six basketball mimicked three-on-three, in which each team had three “forwards” at one end and three “guards” at the other. Players could not cross half-court, and only forwards could shoot the ball. Ball handlers were allowed two dribbles before they had to shoot, and after each basket, the ball was given to the team that had just been scored on at the other end of the court. Rubel says they called the game “girls’ rules,” while five-on-five was simply “boys’ rules.”

She credits six-on-six for “benefitting a lot of girls” and “gave small town girls a chance to be recognized and admired.

Six-on-six was developed because the full-court style of play was considered too strenuous for supposedly fragile female bodies. And with their “bustles, long trains, and high starched collars,” how could women “get up and down the court fast enough”?

But the game wasn’t stodgy or dull. With only six players in action at any time, the court’s open spaces and limitation of two dribbles unlocked a team’s offensive creativity. Forwards had to develop a nearly automatic jump shot, and teams had to perfect crisp passing and cutting if they wanted to score, creating a constant flurry of motion in the half-court. Sure, there were times when a team stalled: In 1979, a district tournament game was tied 0-0 through three overtimes until the winning team exploded for 4 points in the fourth extra period, and won 4-2. But for the most part, offense was prized, and scores often reached triple digits.

“Iowa girls’ basketball was really the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Molly Bolin Kazmer, who graduated from Moravia High School in south central Iowa in 1975. She became the first woman to sign a pro contract in the first pro women’s basketball league, the Women’s Professional Basketball League, in 1978. She credits six-on-six for “benefitting a lot of girls” and “gave small town girls a chance to be recognized and admired.”

“I played in front of full gyms nearly every game in high school,” she remembers of the six-on-six game. “People loved it because we’d score 85 to 100 points in [32] minutes.”

Each season culminated with the Iowa Girls High School State Basketball Tournament, a six-day event in March that has been televised since 1951. The style of play helped manufacture celebrities out of female athletes at a time — especially in team sports — in which few existed. They included Denise Long (playing for Union-Whitten) and Jeanette Olson (at Everly): The two combined for 140 points in the 1968 title game. And Kazmer, who was said to hoist 1,000 shots a game — as a member of the Iowa Cornets in the WBL, she earned the nickname Machine Gun. And Connie Kunzmann, whose Iowa background — “doing farm chores,” which included “stacking hay bales weighing 25 to 50 pounds” — added mystique to her coverage in local papers. Randy Peterson, a sportswriter for the Des Moines Register since 1972, recalls that the paper would send a full team to cover the state tournament: reporters and columnists from both sports and news desks, along with photographers.

During Rubel’s sophomore year, when the forward connected on 60 percent of her shots, she was the state’s fifth-highest scorer, dropping 47 points per game. Like Kazmer, Rubel had a knock-down jumper from up to 15 feet and was agile enough to score against the state’s top defenders. Up until 1970 — her soph season — she described her basketball career as “carefree” and “enjoyable.” She had a natural gift for the sport. She “never had to work that hard at it,” she says, and yet she was “always in the gym” and “never wanted practice to be over.”

“Jane fit in the post position really well because she could not only shoot underneath the baskets, she was also six feet tall,” says Marcia Barber Hackett, Rubel’s former teammate and best friend at Ruthven (her father also coached the girls’ basketball team). “She was … a good passer, good ball handler, good rebounder, the whole thing. She was an asset to the team.”

***

E. Wayne Cooley never set out to become a champion for girls’ athletics.

When he became the IGHSAU’s executive secretary in 1954, he said he had “no special interest in women’s rights.” However, he said that he developed “a love affair with the Iowa girl.” He even went so far as to label the “Iowa high school girl” as his “mistress.”

Rather, his motivation for growing the state’s girls’ high school athletics programs was born out of rejection: Some three decades earlier, the Iowa High School Athletic Association dropped the girls’ basketball state tournament, which led to the formation of the IGHSAU. He didn’t explicitly embrace feminism — he just wanted his program to be better than the boys’ program, once saying, “I’ve always wanted the Iowa girl to walk down the street just as tall as the Iowa boy.”

A 1973 Sports Illustrated story described Cooley as “a hard-driving, fast and forceful man who comes on not as a crusader for women, but as both a promoter and a shrewd and pugnacious executive” who “would be as happy and successful pushing real estate or managing a tool- and-die works as he is running the best girls’ athletic program in the U.S.”

His advocacy and influence were instrumental in popularizing the sport: By the mid-1970s, nearly three quarters of the union’s income came from basketball, and the Des Moines crowds that shuffled into the Veterans Memorial Auditorium for the state tournament essentially footed the bill for other IGHSAU sports, like swimming, softball, golf, volleyball, soccer, and tennis — all of which were added only after Cooley began working for the union (and most before Title IX legislation was passed). According to Carole Baumgarten, Drake’s former women’s basketball coach, “[Cooley] has done so many great things for girls’ sports … he was ahead of his time. The girls already were equal in Iowa.”

“He was a cigar chomping guy,” says Peterson, the longtime Des Moines Register reporter. “He sat back in his chair with his hands behind his head and his feet on his desk.” His granddaughter, Amanda Brode-Rico, says Cooley was one of her “favorite people.” She adds, “I knew that he ran and put on all girls high school athletics” and “that he held a very important position in Iowa, people respected him, and he did a lot for the Iowa girls.”

Cooley, though, wasn’t naive. While he certainly espoused equal rights, telling the Des Moines Register that he “couldn’t compromise my fundamental belief that every girl should have an opportunity to pursue something athletic,” he also realized how essential girls’ basketball was to the IGHSAU’s survival, so when outside forces tried to shift the rules governing six-on-six basketball, Cooley used his influence as the executive secretary to block any changes that could have threatened his biggest moneymaker. Between 1966 and 1970, three new regulations — unlimited dribbling, a 30-second shot clock, and installing a full-court game — sought to dramatically alter women’s basketball nationwide. In effect, ensuring women’s basketball looked very much like the men’s game. But Iowa ignored these tweaks, and so their brand of basketball remained largely unchanged. And one still very popular: More than half of suburban Iowa high school students surveyed in 1976 still supported six-on-six.

Part of the game’s appeal was its tenuous existence in other places. Peterson says that crowds flocked to the state tournament for the uniqueness of the six-player game. Cooley also understood that his state tournament was of political importance. “[State] politicians … would flock up on the state tournament because it was a place for them to be seen and Cooley was always a friend of all the legislators, whichever side of the aisle they were on,” recalls Peterson. “He made sure that they were seen prominently when the games were on TV … because, in his mind, when [Senator] Chuck Grassley or [ex-Senator] Tom Harkin was at a game, they would add status to what was already a status filled event.”

Cooley reigned atop the IGHSAU for 48 years. He said he had “very few regrets” during his time in office, but as girls’ basketball in Iowa became a political battleground over women’s rights and equality, his tenure became pockmarked with controversy. Shelley Lucas writes in her 2003 paper Courting Controversy: Gender and Power in Iowa Girls’ Basketball that “despite efforts to cast him as a feminist, Cooley alternately dismissed, appropriated, and negotiated his way around the rhetoric of feminism as it suited him and the occasion.”

***

In the spring of 1970, toward the end of her sophomore year, Jane Christoffer learned she was pregnant. She had been dating Ken Rubel, a football player at Ruthven, for nearly two years, and the two had known each other since grade school. She was “scared to death,” but both of their families were supportive, and on July 17, 1970, following Ken’s high school graduation, they got married, and rented a small house on the edge of town.

Rubel says there was some “small town talk” about her pregnancy but, for the most part, Ruthven was supportive. At the town’s Hiway Cafe, which was located near the high school, Ruthven citizens had nothing bad to say about the young couple, with one telling the Des Moines Register in 1971, “Both Jane and Kenny come from good families, and they take real good care of that baby. … [Jane] is a good mother.”

“We had other girls from high school get pregnant and everybody supported them,” says Hackett. “Nobody gave them grief or put them down or anything like that.”

Rubel knew her life would change once her daughter was born, but she was adamant on returning to the basketball court. Not only did she miss playing, she wanted to finish her high school career and perhaps even get a college scholarship — she had her eyes set on Wayne State College in Nebraska. She and Ken had discussions about moving beyond Ruthven.

Why shouldn’t she play?,” one neighbor asked the Des Moines Register. “Is it anyone’s business but her own. Isn’t this what equality means?

Rubel gave birth to her daughter, Jennifer, on December 5, 1970. The next month, the high school junior met with coach Barber, principal Eugene Johnson, and superintendent William H. Logan to discuss when she could rejoin the team. The meeting was upsetting: Though Rubel was clearly the best basketball player in Ruthven’s history, their hands were tied. If Rubel — a married student with a 1-month-old at home — was allowed to play, the entire school would lose its athletic certification, which would effectively disquality all of Ruthven’s girls’ teams from being able to compete in any sports.

“She wanted to play, but naturally I had to forbid it,” Logan told the Des Moines Sunday Register. “I wanted her to play but I didn’t want to jeopardize our standing with the other schools in the conference.”

When Cooley first began at IGHSAU, nearly two decades before Rubel gave birth, he instituted a rule that forbid married women, divorcées, and mothers from playing high school basketball. That regulation expanded to all prep athletics as the IGHSAU added more sports. His reasoning for the restriction? “Husbands and homes were the first obligation of the wives.” He clarified his uber-traditional view of gender roles in a December 1977 womenSports story about the lack of female coaches in Iowa. “Not because women aren’t capable, but because historically and traditionally, a woman will be a professional person for three or four years; then she gets married, has a family, and abandons professional life as a coach,” Cooley told the magazine. “I hope that’ll never change. We’ve got to have some housewives and some mothers or something’s going to happen to this society.”

Molly Bolin Kazmer became pregnant in 1976, after her first season at Grand View College in Des Moines. Her coach welcomed her back with open arms after she gave birth to her son, allowing her to bring the infant to practices, but her husband’s family shared Cooley’s domestic viewpoint and strongly advocated that Kazmer stay home with the child. “My [now] ex-husband’s family was not thrilled with the idea that I was going to go play. I met a lot of resistance,” she says. “Because it wasn’t the thing to do when you were married; it was terrible.” So terrible, in fact, that when Kazmer divorced her husband, her basketball career would be the subject of a vicious child custody battle, in which her decision to play basketball was used against her in court.

But some Iowans were starting to look askance at the IGHSAU’s bylaw, creating a perfect environment to challenge the ruling. “Why shouldn’t she play?,” one neighbor asked the Des Moines Register. “Is it anyone’s business but her own. Isn’t this what equality means?”

So Rubel waited, toggling day care duties between her mother and a neighbor while attending high school and sharpening her skills in daily games against her sister. In the lead-up to her senior season, the men told Rubel that maybe there was something they could do — Logan even suggested a lawyer she might retain should the IGHSAU continue to rule against her. Rubel’s father had passed away when she was 10, and these three men were filling the roles she imagined her dad might have played had he been alive.

***

By the fall of 1971, Rubel was still bound by the IGHSAU’s regulations: that because she was “associated with marital status” as well as “associated with motherhood,” she couldn’t play. Rubel’s frustrations continued to mount. “I just wanted to play,” she told the Des Moines Register in 1993. Her friends and family knew that Rubel wasn’t going to meekly accept the IGHSAU’s ruling. She was right to want to play, and she was going to make a stand.

“If you knew my wife, you’d know she’s just that kind of girl,” her husband told the Estherville Daily News. “It wasn’t so much whether she got to play, she just didn’t think this was right, and she more or less set out to do something about it.”

On November 1, 1971, just weeks before the start of basketball season, Rubel’s eligibility was yet again denied, effectively ending her basketball career at Ruthven high school. But Rubel and her legion of supporters were prepared for such a setback. The next day, lawyers Don Bormann and Eliot Landau filed a $125,000 suit for damages in federal court on Rubel’s behalf, charging the IGHSAU with violating her civil rights.

The lawsuit argued that the IGHSAU “illegally and unconstitutionally conspired to render ineligible any female student who has ever been ‘associated with marital status’ and/or who has been ‘associated with motherhood.’” It also contended that, in order to qualify to play high school sports, athletes must live at home with their parent or guardian, with no exceptions made for married students living with a spouse — there was no comparable exclusion for male students who are husbands or fathers. In fact, the prior year — the season Rubel sat out — a senior boy at Ruthven was married, fathered a child, and was still allowed to play basketball.

“The impact of these policies is and has been to discriminate against plaintiff Jane Rubel on the basis of her sex,” the suit reads. “This is invidious discrimination in violation of her right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendent to the United States Consitution.” The lawsuit argued that this discrimination had a negative impact on the future plans of Rubel and her husband (who was also a plaintiff in the suit), since it could adversely impact her ability to receive a college basketball scholarship.

Several days after her lawsuit was filed, Judge William C. Hanson issued a temporary restraining order, allowing Rubel to begin practicing with her team. Cooley was unhappy with the decision. “There is a strong health and safety factor here,” he told the Des Moines Sunday Register. “A married woman shouldn’t be playing basketball; what would happen if she were pregnant and were injured while playing? Who would be liable?” He vowed to fight the case all the way through the courts.

But 1971 was not 1954, when the rule was first implemented. Ken told the press, “It’s always argued it’s bad for a mother’s health” to play basketball, “but doctors always say to exercise after having a baby. I think it’s a good deal.” Cooley was trying to graft the values of an earlier time onto a decade in which social norms were changing. Yes, the IGHSAU afforded a platform for girls’ prep athletics when few states even considered equal rights on the playing field, but the association had reached a crossroads. Wholesale change was required. What Cooley had envisioned as freeing had become an albatross during a period when the women’s liberation movement and Title IX were germinating. “She was a good student and a good athlete,” superintendent Logan said of Rubel. “I think it’s rather absurd for the IGHSAU to continue fighting for this rule. It’s a 17-year-old rule and it’s out of date.”

Not only did the yearbook emphasize grooming tips, along with the personal appearance and marriage prospects of each teenager, it also mentioned their emotionally acuity, such as whether they cried after wins and losses.

Coach Barber felt similarly. “The boys are allowed to play if they’re married, and it’s certainly not fair to discriminate against the girls,” he told the Register.

Rubel — who had no desire to challenge larger societal structures — wasn’t the only one who saw Cooley as “a little backwards in his ways of thinking” on this issue. So, too, did most of the people in Ruthven. According to a story in the Register, “It’s hard to find anyone here who doesn’t think Jane Rubel should play basketball if she wants to.” Hackett — Rubel’s friend and teammate — told the paper that all the young people she’d talked to in surrounding towns supported Rubel’s desire to play, calling the lawsuit the topic of discussion at Friday night high school football game.

Rubel might not have been a women’s libber, but the blatant hypocrisy of the IGHSAU’s position rubbed her raw. “I just didn’t understand why I couldn’t do it if he could,” she says, characterizing herself during my interview as a quiet and traditional 17-year-old. Rubel says that she might not have fought the rule if the double standard hadn’t been so blatantly thrown in her face. But it was, and it enraged her.

It has been nearly 50 years, and Kazmer still remembers the impact of Rubel’s lawsuit. “It was kind of like, ‘How dare you sue for that,’” but now, Kazmer says, “I get it.” She believes the outrage was the result of girls attempting to live up to the image that Cooley had created for them as players — the model of “farm-girl femininity” that the IGHSAU had long promoted. “We all had to be good little girls,” she explains. That pressure was tangible: Prior to each IGHSAU basketball season, from 1944 to 1964, copies of the Iowa Girls’ Basketball Yearbook were published and distributed. Not only did the yearbook emphasize grooming tips, along with the personal appearance and marriage prospects of each teenager, it also mentioned their emotionally acuity, such as whether they cried after wins and losses.

Cooley expected the players to be good little girls who still appealed to the male gaze — but only in an innocent and chaste way, which a mother never could. Rubel’s child was proof that she was neither. “Our girls play in attractive uniforms — they may be mildly revealing but they are in good taste,” Cooley told Sports Illustrated. “The girls are young, graceful, skillful, and enthusiastic about their game, and they are very competitive.”

On November 12, Ed Lasko, the General Manager of KCRG radio and televisions stations — the ABC affiliate for eastern Iowa at the time — broadcast an editorial comment in support of Rubel’s cause. “There seems to be no justification for the rule [prohibiting married students or mothers from playing] except that married students may ‘taint’ the other young athletes,” the segment noted. “The rule appears to be an attempt to legislate alleged morality by a group that we feel has no business trying to do that. We hope Mrs. Jane Rubel wins her case.”

Rubel also got letters of support from all over the state. “Just wanted to let you know that someone in southwest Iowa is pulling for you. I sincerely hope you will be allowed to play,” read an encouraging three-page note from Betty Boeck Massena, which was written on stationary with the header banter from betty.

The federal district court judge had scheduled a hearing for November 22nd, but his temporary restraining order allowed Rubel to “seek to qualify for a position” on the team, one which coach Barber was only happy to provide. She promptly scored 25 points in a coaches’ clinic game in nearby Spencer. Cooley and the other eight members of the IGHSAU board of directors could see the writing on the wall, and a few days before the hearing was set to take place, Cooley reversed the IGHSAU’s bylaw. Rubel’s eligibility was restored.

Cooley, though, didn’t have a change of heart. He still stood by his stance that married women had no business playing basketball — he and the IGHSAU’s board of directors and its advisory council just believed that continuing the fight would cause irrevocable financial harm to the union. According to Cooley, the athletic union had an annual budget of $480,000, and in taking stock of the potential outcomes for the case, he saw a likelihood that there would be a lengthy appeals process — he believed this case might even be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. “The rule was a landmark; I saw it tumble and fall, and it makes me very unhappy, but the union has to be big enough to survive this,” he told the Associated Press.

Cooley “actually believed … I would’ve been a really bad influence for the image of girls’ basketball,” Rubel says.

***

In the midst of Rubel’s senior campaign, in which she averaged more than 30 points and took Ruthven to within one game of the 1971–72 state tournament, Hanson issued a final ruling on her case. The judge decided that the IGHSAU had violated the constitutions of both the United States and the state of Iowa by barring married and divorced women and mothers from participating in high school sports. The union’s bylaw created “an unnecessary public interest in and involvement with Jane Rubel’s marital status and conjugal relations.”

Hanson added, “They cause the state to invade marital privacy without rational justification and to violate [Rubel’s] right to privacy and personal freedom. … No attempt has been made to show why females should be treated differently from males in these (athletic) activities.”

Though she didn’t receive any of the $125,000 in damages she sought, the ruling was a stinging rebuke to the IGHSAU, and Hanson’s decision came at what was the beginning of a critical period for women’s constitutional rights. On November 22, 1971 — the day Rubel’s hearing had been scheduled to take place — the Supreme Court decided Reed v. Reed, a case that included a brief written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Reed was a tipping point: Writing for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Warren Burger held that constitutional equal protection applies to gender. Reed opened the door to a rethinking of women’s rights under the constitution, and Hanson was likely aware of the potential impact of Rubel’s lawsuit on future cases in this new environment. Hanson didn’t need to write a decision — following the lead of Cooley and the IGHSAU, he could have mooted the case, but he proceeded anyway to issue a strong denunciation of the union’s unconstitutional policy. (He also wanted to protect Rubel and Ruthven high school from “penalties and harm from IGHSAU for their actions prior.” That is, allowing Rubel to play under the temporary restraining order.)

The court’s ruling in hand, Rubel’s senior campaign should have been a successful one, but even during her moment of triumph, she and her teammates felt — and still feel — the effects of what they perceive as Cooley’s ire. In Ruthven’s final game of the season, the team played Everly, one of its fiercest rivals. If Ruthven won, it would have qualified for the state tournament in Des Moines, and showcased Rubel — now a certified David to the IGHSAU’s Goliath — in front of tens of thousands of fans. Rubel believes Cooley “was not gonna have that.”

Ruthven led by nine points after the first quarter when, according to Rubel, “the refs just started calling fouls and just whatever else they could to even out the game. And there was like five out of the six of us in foul trouble before the game closed.” And though no Ruthven player fouled out, Everly still attempted 28 free throws to Ruthven’s 15, a glaring disparity.

Dick Broadie was at the game. The then 18-year-old was a cousin of Debra Broadie Kunzmann, Rubel’s teammate, and the longtime University of Northern Iowa lecturer remembers that a high percentage of the referees’s calls “seemed like they greatly favored Everly.” He explains that Ruthven wasn’t known for drawing excessive whistles, but they did that game, adding that any “Ruthven partisan who saw the game would agree” that is was unfairly officiated.

Ruthven managed to keep the final score close, only losing by nine points, but Rubel says there is “no doubt in [her] mind” that the refs were instructed by Cooley to fix the game. To this day, she doesn’t have any concrete evidence of a plot against her, but she recalls being told by a relative of one of Everly’s players that someone had come to the school and informed the team not to worry about the game. (I was unable to confirm these allegations.)

According to Hackett, Cooley called Barber prior to the game and told the coach that there was “no way in hell” Ruthven would get to the IGHSAU’s state tournament.

Even still, Hackett believes the team is partially responsible for the loss. “We went to the locker room and it was like, ‘They aren’t going to let us win this game.’ We should have worked harder,” she says. “We should have kept our cool a little better.”

What should have been the crowning moment of her high school basketball career left a bad taste in her mouth: “If I would have made it to the state tournament, I think that [Cooley] would have had to address all those issues all over again and we would have proven him wrong.”

Her aspiration to earn a college basketball scholarship also faded. She suspects that her status as a mother discouraged colleges from offering a scholarship to a player who routinely scored 30-plus points a game. She describes it as a major disappointment in her life.

So she went to work. In 1974, she became a postal worker, a job she did for 35 years until she retired in 2009. In 1978, Rubel gave birth to another daughter, Natalie, who passed away earlier this year. She and Ken have been married for 49 years.

***

Even though Cooley was “unhappy” that the regulation was repealed, he ultimately didn’t fight the court’s decision. When Title IX passed the following year, he was confident the law wouldn’t impact Iowa, which he considered so far ahead of the rest of the country with regard to its athletic offerings for girls. In 1974, Cooley wrote a letter to the governor of Iowa saying that “our state will be totally free of agitation or critical review.” Unfortunately for Cooley, Title IX was about more than counting the number of female participants in sporting events. The IGHSAU itself came under examination for being a sex-segregated athletic union, and the question of whether six-on-six basketball was an equitable offering persisted for decades to come.

This baffled Cooley. “I don’t know why the feminist people are coming at us,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 1980. Lucas’s 2003 paper on Iowa girls’ basketball cites a newspaper clipping that quotes Cooley as saying, “It’s a game for girls and by girls — and nothing is more feminist on this earth!”

“He fought and fought to keep the six-player basketball game when there were a number of efforts that tried to implement the five-player game,” remembers Peterson. “And he fought that until he couldn’t fight it any longer.” He contested change “until it became so evident that the six-player game — as interesting as it was— was still possibly keeping girls from having an equal chance to have a college scholarship. So he eventually succumbed to all that pressure.”

In his staunch support of six-on-six, Cooley openly stated that girls were “physiologically different” from boys and lacked the stamina to be able to handle the full-court game. He believed that women’s bodies were fragile and needed to be protected. This, of course, is in line with narratives about female athletes that go back to the turn of the 20th century; for more than a century, it has been argued that women’s bodies are not meant to play sports and that doing so could harm them and — especially — damage their reproductive health.

He had overstayed his welcome, and to some, Cooley was a totem of an earlier time. “His popularity declined as the younger generation started to populate the girls high school sports scene, because [Cooley] was very set in his ways,” says Peterson. “He still had the best interest of the Iowa high school girl athlete in mind, it’s just that he couldn’t get out of his head that his old-school way was the best way to do it in what was then a new era for Iowa high school sports.”

When asked about the dichotomy of Cooley’s views and advocacy, Brode-Rico is surprised to hear how her grandfather has been characterized. “I was 32 [and single] when he passed away and never do I remember him asking about when I was going to get married,” she says. “Our conversations were always around my teaching [career] and my coaching. I was a boys’ varsity head coach for track and cross country.”

Shortly after Cooley died in 2013, Molly Bolin Kazmer got a call from Bill Wall, a former executive director of USA Basketball who coached Division II’s MacMurray for two decades. Wall and Cooley had both been inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and they served together on the Hall’s board of directors. According to Kazmer, the ex-coach told her that he’d discovered Cooley had blocked her from being inducted. She shared a voicemail that Wall had left her: “If you used be to Machine Gun Molly Bolin, I’d like to come and talk to you. We had run your name years ago as a candidate, and one of your colleagues, E. Wayne, blocked you. … So I’d like to develop a resume and try again.”

The two met for lunch in the winter of 2013, and Kazmer says Wall discussed submitting a new nomination for her. But he passed away in 2014, just nine months after Cooley. This puzzled me: Kazmer was one of Iowa’s greatest players and had been the first woman in history to sign a pro contract, even after she’d had a child during her college years. Why wouldn’t Cooley want her added to the Hall? When asked for confirmation, Dana Hart, the president of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, initially said that in her 17 years with the Hall, she had never heard that allegation, but that she would reach out to the chair of the hall’s board of directors to see if she could recommend someone for me to speak with who might remember; she never did.

I spoke with another source connected to the Hall, who told me that Kazmer had indeed been nominated in 2006. According to the Hall’s nomination process, once a name is submitted for consideration, that individual never leaves the pool of prospective inductees. There isn’t a need to “try again,” so Kazmer could have been selected at any point during the past 13 years. Longreads also spoke with Scott Wall — Bill’s son, who is an NBA referee — for some insight into why his father might have felt Kazmer had been snubbed. Scott had never heard of Kazmer, nor did he know his father’s connection to her or Cooley, but he mentioned Bill’s passion as an unofficial historian of women’s basketball. “No matter how prominent someone might have been, they’d fall through the cracks, and my dad was their supporter,” he says. “He knew about those people, and he wanted them to be recognized in the moment, those who stood in your shoes before you got here. He wanted the Hall to induct more people, and he’d seek them out.”

Wall suggested Longreads speak with Billie Moore, one of his father’s closest friends and a longtime coach at UCLA, and while she too wasn’t aware of any connection, she similarly recalled Wall’s herculean-esque efforts on the nominating committee. “Bill was relentless in making sure that no one was overlooked,” she says of her fellow board member. “He wanted to make sure the history of the game was represented, and the people there at the start had an opportunity.” Jackie Joyner-Kersee had played for Moore, averaging just under 10 points per game, and Wall had once “blown up” Moore’s phone trying to secure support for the nomination of the track and field Olympian. “I’d tell him, ‘No Bill, the bars are in place for a reason,’” she says. “He wanted such a big net so that no one was missed.”

When I followed up with Hart, she sent me a short statement: “The actions of the board in regard to candidates are confidential. The full board votes when considering candidates for induction.” The question still remains: If Kazmer had been up for consideration for the past decade-plus, why did Wall feel that he had to wait until Cooley passed before cold-calling Kazmer? “I don’t think I ever met him face-to-face,” she says of Cooley, “and if I did, I had nothing but the most respect for him because I loved the game and the sport and everything.”

Rubel, who also never met Cooley directly, has some regrets. She wishes she’d marched down to his office herself and asked him why he wouldn’t let her play, but she never did. Then again, being that confrontational would have been totally out of character for her.

Rubel never intended to be a trailblazer, but looking back, she hopes that she had a positive impact on the girls that followed her. And indeed, she did. Several players in northern Iowa had been waiting for a ruling on Rubel’s case before deciding whether to challenge the IGHSAU’s policy — Cooley specifically cited a “girl in Gruver” named Kaylynn Reinhardt Anderson that “was preparing to file a suit of her own” — and their eligibilities were reinstated. By early 1972, the union’s board made another sweeping alteration, amending a rule related to absences from school — in light of Rubel’s victory, the union began to allow students whose absences were related to issues of childbirth to retain their eligibilities and participate in athletics. When pushed, the IGHSAU capitulated.

Rubel’s lawsuit also impacted everyday extracurricular activities, like music, which had been off-limits for married high schoolers. Weeks after the ruling, the Estherville School District abandoned its policy of preventing high schoolers with children from participating in after-school events. It was now unenforceable.

And Rubel’s case was an early indication of six-on-six basketball’s demise: In 1977, a 14-year-old in Arkansas — a state where six-on-six was similarly king — was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit asking the state’s high school athletic association to allow girls to play full-court basketball, and her request was granted two years later when a federal district court ruled that limiting girls to six-on-six violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. That decision was followed by a lawsuit filed in 1983 by three Iowans who were “perfectly capable of doing both offense and defense.” Cooley — still atop the IGHSAU — punted, allowing individual high school teams to decide whether they wanted to play five-on-five or six-on-six. For all intents and purposes, girls’ rules basketball was essentially no more.

What is fascinating about Rubel — and the people involved in her cause — is the demonstration of how social change happens and who helps bring it about. Rubel was not seeking to change oppressive systems, and yet she did. And while Cooley harbored regressive ideas about the place of women and girls in society, he still built one of the largest athletic programs for girls in the country, establishing an athletic framework decades before Title IX. Yes, social movements are created on picket lines and in organizing meetings, but also in smaller acts involving individuals taking a stand to fight something they view as unfair.

Rubel hasn’t often publicly spoken about her basketball past and the historic lawsuit. She donated all her papers to the Iowa Women’s Archives, where they’ve sat for years “open for research” and waiting for people who want to learn more about how a 17-year-old battled discrimination — and won. “Going through some of the old articles, some of the things that were happening back then, if it hadn’t been me in those articles, I would’ve thought this girl was pretty good,” says Rubel. “She’d actually done some good.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance sports writer living in Boston. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, espnW, Bleacher Report, and more.

Editor: Matt Giles

Fact checker: Jason Stavers

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross