Cape v. Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association
By William Haltom (’75, LIB. ARTS; ’78, LAW)
She won more games than any coach in the history of college basketball. She won eight national championships. She coached the U.S. Women’s Team to an Olympic gold medal and had a graduation rate of 100 percent: Every athlete who played for her for four years graduated.
But one of Pat Head Summitt’s (’75, ED/HHS) biggest victories came not on the basketball court but in a courtroom where she testified as an expert witness on behalf of a young non-shooting guard named Victoria Cape (’85, HCB).
Victoria was a junior on the women’s basketball team at Oak Ridge High School. She was a guard, but she had not scored a single point during her high school basketball career. She had not made a single offensive rebound or a single assist. She had never even dribbled a basketball past half-court. That was because it was 1976, and under the rules applicable to Tennessee girls’ high school basketball at the time, a guard was not allowed to shoot the ball or even run past the half-court line during a game. She couldn’t lead a fast break or a full-court press. She couldn’t even run plays as a point guard.
The rules were promulgated by the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association (TSSAA) and dictated that high school girls could only play six-player (three forwards, and three guards) split-court basketball. A team’s three forwards would stay on one side of the court and be allowed to pass, shoot and rebound. The team’s three guards, like Victoria, would stay on the other half of the court and play only defense. The basis for this rule was the belief that the sweet little girls playing basketball in Tennessee should not engage in vigorous physical activity such as running eighty-four feet down a basketball court. Such activity was actually considered “dangerous” at the time for young flowers of the South.
Young Victoria Cape was lucky to be playing high school basketball at all, much less playing confined to half the court. In Memphis, girls’ high school basketball was actually prohibited, as some “physical education experts” argued that such “aggressive activity” by a young girl might even cause her uterus to fall out! I’m not making this up. This was actually a concern, even though during the entire history of girls’ high school basketball in Tennessee no one had ever seen a uterus lying on a basketball court.
Victoria wanted to play a full game of basketball, not a half one. She also dreamed of playing college basketball as a point guard, but even in the early years of women’s college basketball, no coach was going to recruit a point guard who had never been allowed to set up a play.
And so Victoria hired two fine lawyers from Oak Ridge: Ann Mostoller (’74, LAW) and Dorothy Stulberg (’74, LAW; ’04, ED/HHS). These two female lawyers apparently had little or no concern for the prospect of falling uteri, and so they filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee on behalf of Victoria against the TSSAA. They claimed that the TSSAA was violating the rights of Victoria to the equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution.
The case was assigned to Judge Robert Taylor. Prior to his legal career, Judge Taylor had been a pretty good athlete himself. He had played both basketball and baseball at Milligan College and was so good at baseball that during the summers of his undergraduate years, he played semi-pro. He never played baseball or basketball with women, but as the case turned out, he didn’t seem to be too worried about the danger posed to females who participated in sports.
Victoria’s lawsuit received substantial media coverage. Randy Moore, a sports columnist for the Knoxville Journal, wrote, “Tennessee’s most important girls’ basketball contest of the year won’t be settled on a court, but in one.” At the time, Tennessee was one of only five states that prohibited girls from playing full-court basketball like the boys.
The case went to trial on August 24, 1976, with both sides calling several witnesses. Gil Gideon, executive secretary of the TSSAA, testified that the “split-court” rules were necessary “to prevent girls from straining themselves,” and “aided clumsy girls who can’t play full court.”
The defense also called Coach James Smiddy (’49, ED/HHS), coach of the girls’ basketball team at Bradley County High School, who expressed the expert opinion that the “split-court game is the prettiest thing about girls’ basketball.”
But Victoria’s lawyers also called an expert witness, and she turned out to be the star witness of the trial. She was Pat Head, later to be more famously known as Pat Summitt, and when she testified, she had recently returned from the Olympic Games in Montreal where she had been captain of the U.S. Women’s Basketball Team that won the silver medal.
In her expert testimony, Coach Head not only rebutted the notion that neither she nor Victoria or other young women were capable of playing the full court game. She also gave Judge Taylor and everyone in the courtroom a glimpse into the future. She testified that in the coming years there would be even more college scholarship opportunities for young women to play college basketball and participate in other intercollegiate sports. She warned that Victoria and other girls in Tennessee who were playing under the split-court rules had been saddled with both “a mental and physical handicap for them to overcome when changing to the full-court college game,” and this handicap was going to severely restrict their opportunities to win college scholarships, especially when forty-five other states allowed their female high school basketball players to play the full-court game.
After hearing the proof, Judge Taylor met with his young law clerk, Charles Huddleston (’73, AG; ’76, LAW), a recent graduate of UT Law. Charles was not only a student of the law, he was a student of the game of basketball, and was from a family of coaches and athletes. His father was a college athlete and a high school women’s basketball coach. His mother was a college athlete when her last name was “Majors” — she was the first cousin of the legendary Tennessee Vol Johnny Majors (’57, ED/HHS). Before deciding to attend law school, Charles had often dreamed of becoming a basketball coach himself, and as it turned out, he became a highly successful and influential one. After concluding his clerkship with Judge Taylor, he moved to Atlanta and started a fabulously successful legal career, and he also ultimately became director of the Georgia Metros, one of the nation’s most successful AAU women’s basketball programs. He coached Kelley Cain (’11, HCB) and Alicia Manning (’11 and ’13, ED/HHS), who both became Lady Vols, and Maya Moore, who played in the North. During his dual career as both a lawyer and coach, he helped almost 400 young women go to college on basketball scholarships.
Judge Taylor asked his law clerk what he thought of the proof he had heard in the case. Charles indeed had his own opinion about the case, but he was smart enough to defer to his boss. “It’s not important how I feel about the proof,” Charles said. “Judge, tell me how you feel.”
Without hesitation, Judge Taylor replied, “Well, I know one thing. The game the girls are being forced to play by the TSSAA is not basketball.”
On November 24, 1976, Judge Taylor issued his opinion, finding that half-court or split-court rules of the TSSAA deprived Victoria Cape of “the greater health benefits enjoyed by male players under the full-court rules.” Fully persuaded by the expert testimony of Coach Pat Head, Judge Taylor also found that “the proof establishes that the plaintiff, due to the shooting prohibition applied to guards, has a lesser opportunity to gain a college scholarship than she would if she could play under the full-court rules. The court concludes that such injury is significant.”
Judge Taylor ordered that the split-court, six-player restrictions imposed on girls’ high school basketball by the TSSAA were unconstitutional and should be changed to allow female basketball players to play the full-court game. Judge Taylor did not issue an injunction forcing the TSSAA to comply because he said he was of the opinion that the TSSAA would act in accordance with his holding and there was no reason for an injunction.
Judge Taylor’s faith in the TSSAA turned out to be misplaced. When Victoria and girls’ basketball players across the state started the 1976–1977 season, the TSSAA ignored Judge Taylor’s ruling.
On December 27, 1976, a clearly disappointed Judge Taylor issued the injunction against the TSSAA that he had thought would not be necessary.
Rather than complying, the TSSAA effectively sent the contest into overtime, appealing Judge Taylor’s decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In October 1977, the Sixth Circuit reversed Judge Taylor, holding that the six-player, split-court rules did not constitute unlawful sex discrimination.
Victoria Cape finished her high school basketball career at Oak Ridge without ever crossing half court, and was never offered a scholarship to play college basketball.
Judge Taylor was frustrated by the Sixth Circuit’s reversal and refused to give up the fight. In 1978, he gave the commencement speech at UT’s spring graduation and decided to use the “Orange Bully Pulpit” to discuss the Cape case. He said his decision was correct and had been reversed by a “misguided appeals court.”
A debate ensued across the Volunteer State, with young female high school basketball players and their parents arguing that the TSSAA should allow the female gender a full-court game. Their argument was no doubt helped by the fact that in 1978, Pat Head Summitt’s Lady Volunteers became the number one-ranked women’s college basketball team in America, after defeating three-time women’s national champion Delta State.
Victoria had lost in the Sixth Circuit, but she won her case in the court of public opinion. In 1979, the TSSAA approved five-player, full-court play for women’s high school basketball in Tennessee.
Coach Summitt went on to make sports history. When she passed away on June 28 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, she was remembered in the worldwide media as the greatest and most influential coach in the history of sports.
This year, as Tennessee high school girls’ basketball players run down the court—all eighty-four feet of it, uteri intact—they will owe it to a full-court press. It was one that was executed to perfection forty years ago by Coach Summitt, Victoria Cape, and two fine lawyers who found a sympathetic audience not only in Judge Taylor, but in the families of many young female basketball players across the state whose daughters were already dreaming of being Lady Vols.