Penn Manor High School’s old West Gymnasium was knocked down last week as part of the construction of the new high school on campus. It brought an official end to the gym’s 62-year history. Two months ago, I wrote a story about that history, highlighting some of the Comets’ best moments and student-athletes to have stepped foot in the gym.
But there’s another story about Penn Manor's West Gym to be told, in part to show just how far things have come in the treatment of female athletes.
Let’s turn back the clock 50 years, to Penn Manor’s 1969-70 girls basketball season. The program had been created just a handful of years prior. Back then, the girls junior varsity team began its home games during halftime of the varsity games. When the varsity returned from the locker room, the JV game paused and the varsity finished the second half of its game, followed by the JV again taking the court to finish out the remainder of its game.
According to Paula Katchmer, a 1971 Penn Manor grad who was a member of the Comets’ JV squad in 1969-70, here’s what happened in one such intstance:
“The JV girls on both teams were working hard and were invested in the game,” Katchmer said. “But then, the clock struck 5 p.m. and the athletic director told us it had to end.
“There was only about two to three minutes left (of the game), but he said it had to end. We all pleaded with him to let it finish, but he would not relent. When we asked him why, the response was that the floor had to be swept for the boys JV team’s game that did not start for another hour and a half.
“We kind of thought that wasn’t a good reason and felt we didn’t count. ... Eventually, the AD turned the gym lights out on us. It can get dark in a gym in winter. We did eventually leave, angry and embarrassed by the lack of respect our AD showed the other coach, team and us. But, we were only girls.
“Some of us got together and wrote a letter to the other team apologizing for what had happened. That did not go over well. Our coach was talked to and the scribbler of the letter was called to the office.”
Molly DeHart Henderson, a 1971 Penn Manor alum who later became the Lancaster County commissioner, was on the court that day alongside Katchmer.
“I remember the lights being turned out, and it just being so ... insulted,” Henderson said. “And being disregarded. It was so inconsiderate.”
It’s worth pointing out here the Penn Manor principal then was Glenn Davis, and the athletic director was David Neff. Both men died in 2010. So their side of the story can’t be told.
For Katchmer, a three-sport student-athlete during her prep days, the incident went along with how girls sports were treated then.
“The boys didn’t have to take their uniforms home to get them washed, the school did it for them,” she said. “Whereas we had to take our uniforms home and wash them ourselves. ... And in girls tennis, we didn’t have the nice uniforms the boys did. We were wearing pennies until my junior year.”
This treatment wasn’t unique to Penn Manor. The late Pat Summit, the legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach who won 1,098 games from 1974 to 2012, shared the following in a Q&A with Time Magazine in 2009: “I had to drive the van when I first started coaching. One time, for a road game, we actually slept in the other team’s gym the night before. ... When I was a player at the University of Tennessee-Martin, we played at Tennessee Tech for three straight games, and we didn’t wash our uniforms. We only had one set. ... We didn’t think anything about it.”
Summitt, who died in 2016, also noted in the Time Q&A how much progress women’s basketball had made: “It’s great at night, when we're not playing, to be able to come home and turn the TV on and watch Big 12, Big East, ACC and SEC women’s games. It’s amazing how far we’ve come.”
The progress was likely aided by a piece of landmark legislation passed in 1972: Title IX. Among many prongs, Title IX created more athletic opportunities for females, and protected people from discrimination based on sex.
Today, most school districts sponsor more than a dozen sports programs for girls from the middle school to high school levels. There are numerous club or travel programs available to girls as well.
It’s a dramatic increase from the three or four high school sports programs available to girls 50 years ago — usually a mix of field hockey, basketball, tennis or cheerleading.
Still, there remains room for improvement. For instance, WNBA players are fighting to close the pay gap between pro female and male basketball players, while the United States Women’s National Soccer Team is grappling for equal pay and treatment as the men’s team.
It’s here Katchmer pointed out an incident last September when an NCAA Division I field hockey double-header at Kent State University was cut short for a pre-game fireworks show nearby at the football stadium. Temple field hockey senior Lucy Reed, a Warwick grad, was on the field that day.
“It brought light to a situation in athletics to make sure this doesn't happen again,” Reed said. “We could’ve won this game. It ended up not counting for anything. But we were lucky to be the ones in this position to make sure people know this isn’t OK.”
An ensuing investigation by Kent State University found no Title IX violations. But the incident, perhaps aided by the internet and social media, made national headlines. And likely served as a learning lesson for the parties involved.
Had it happened 50 years ago, it may have been swept under the rug.