Megan Haber is a sweetheart.
That's a platonic guy-term for a woman who has a gracious, thoughtful personality, and unafraid of a dash of humor. If that earns me a "sexist" charge from some PC enforcer, bring it on. I fear you not.
OK, now about Megan.
She's an instructor of "exercise science and wellness" at Grossmont College. More important for this story, she's also women's tennis coach. That's what makes her jump out of bed in the morning with a smile.
Her teams win a lot of matches, and that's a big deal to the players, but athletic victory is a flower that soon wilts. Long term, Megan wants to use competitive sports to reveal to her students that they have an "inner beast" that needs to be aroused, and once at full throat, will prepare them for a competitive world that requires confidence and boldness.
That beast pushes them to endure sweaty faces, heaving lungs and aching muscles, then go out and return an overhand smash. And if unsuccessful, smile and offer a handshake at the net.
You've come a long way, girls. (Ugh! Bad cliché.) I remember reading a dismissive comment about women's sports back-when: Some guy wrote, "Whoever married a girl because she could run faster than another girl?"
If he wrote that today, he'd better be able to run faster. Thanks to health consciousness and such things as Title IX (more about that later), sports at all levels have bounded into the frontal lobe of women's awareness.
Megan, 47, was a competitive tennis player at Grossmont College, and then at Sonoma State before returning to teach and coach at Grossmont 20 years ago.
When Megan gets wound-up on the subject of women in sports, exclamation marks push periods off the ends of sentences.
"People might say of girls that they're ‘sweet and pretty,' but then you get them on a court, and, yeah, they're still sweet and pretty, but then you see the side of them where they become a beast: ‘Coach, I'm ready!' The beast is unleashed, and people in the bleachers are, like, ‘Whoa!'"
OK, but how does that affect her life once she leaves the locker room?
"She walks off the court with her confidence enhanced. She gets a little chip on her shoulder. She's done her best, win or lose. She's had the bonding experience that comes with team effort."
Are women athletes as competitive as men?
"Yes, of course they are. Why wouldn't they be?"
On the progress continuum for women, sports came long after the vote. Much of the hesitation was based on medical opinion that their frail bodies would not withstand the rigor of intense exercise.
For perspective, it was only a few decades ago that girls' basketball rules restricted players from crossing half-court; defensive players stayed in the back court and offensive players in the front court. The kindly assumption was that running full court would be too exhausting.
The women's marathon was only added to the Olympics in 1984. That very first race led to one of the most gutty displays in Olympics history (see YouTube video of Gabriela Andersen-Schiess).
Women's intercollegiate sports burst through the door in 1972 with the passage of federal Title IX. That law requires women to receive equal access to athletics as their male counterparts. The meaning: if you spend $1 on men's sports, you must spend $1 on women's sports; if you sponsor 10 men's teams, you must sponsor 10 women's teams.
What happened was an explosion of female teams and participation. Voila! Women students laced up sneakers on campuses nationwide.
Megan, however, joins male coaching colleagues in recognizing a problem with Title IX, or at least an imbalance.
Because football sponges up so many scholarships and so much money, the consequence is that schools eliminate men's sports in clusters to balance out women's. Or, they "give away" women's scholarships to achieve parity.
Megan says she occasionally is phoned by Division I women's coaches almost pleading for a "body" to fill a scholarship.
Megan believes that equilibrium, not to mention fairness, would be achieved by making football a unique thing apart and not calculated as a part of the Title IX equation. That way, there would be a more realistic fulfillment of the aims of the legislation, and men wrestlers and golfers could get their teams back.
Of course, the only results from this reasonable proposal will be a dead end, and Megan will get some nasty phone calls.
Hannah Interoicchia is 22 and finishing her studies at Grossmont. She'll soon move on to Columbia College in South Carolina, the beneficiary of a tennis scholarship, where she will continue her psychology studies.
But it didn't start out that way for Hannah. Megan says, "Three years ago, she was new to the area, was shy, and didn't yet have a lot of friends. She lacked confidence and wasn't in great shape, even though she's a natural athlete. However, she showed an interest in tennis, so I invited her to try out for the team.
"It's like it changed her life around. She's now a fitness junkie, has a ton of friends, and was voted team captain for 2016. In three years, this gal changed her life around. She blossomed."
Then, Megan adds her signature exclamation point: "Yipeeeee! Women's sports!"
Hannah says that under Megan's prodding she became a weight-room habitue, substituting that for pizza. She lost more than 30 pounds and has doubled her bench press to 85 pounds with more repetitions.
"It really molded me into the person I am today," Hannah says. "I love sports. Just being on the team gives me a feeling of belonging. It really helped me learn who I am."
She says competitive sports enhances her feminine side.
"I'm not completely a jock person. Being healthy and feeling comfortable in my skin is where I can show my femininity."
Megan tells of a player on her team a few years ago who had come from a tough upbringing and somehow was manipulated to become - in effect - the mistress of a much older man.
Megan witnessed the angst the girl carried around like a knapsack of stones. However, she joined the tennis team, and other players soon picked up on her state of mind. Teammates gave the young woman the encouragement and emotional support to make the break from her sexual exploiter.
Megan has a cheerleader personality, but not the teenage type; it means her belief in what she's doing compels her into verbal cartwheels.
I read the anonymous, online student evaluations directed at Megan, and they all but turn her into a plaster statue with a halo and a little bird in her hand.
Here are three comments with the same tone as others:
"I love Megan Haber. She is the greatest person I have ever met."
"She is patient, funny, has a great personality and she truly wants us to learn and have fun while doing it. She's the bomb!"
"(A) fun person! Her goal on making you want to be the best is contagious. You actually start doing well in other school fields."
The purpose of those recitations is not to make Megan feel good, although I'm sure she won't hide this paper. The point is - if the teacher can hardly wait to get to class, the contagion that student refers to will infect others.
Education can be fun. What a great idea. Or, as Megan would say, "Wow!"
There's a lot of mythology about youth and sports. I remember my mother responding to my enthusiasm for high school sports by repeating a canard that someone had obviously told her. "A sports-minded boy is a clean-minded boy," she said. I nodded with a smile, aware that mom apparently had never heard of multitasking.
As a group, my coaches were the least admirable of my teachers. I, a teenage contrarian, recall thinking at the end of a lost game: This is pretty disappointing, but they (coaches) think it's a tragedy.
Even at that age, I knew the difference.
It doesn't have to be that way. Sports will have a more honored place in education when we start putting as much value on a women's tennis coach who happily accepts an adjunct-faculty pittance for bringing fun and achievement into the lives of her players as we do on some football coach who is paid twice the governor's salary and who froths at the mouth on TV whenever a pass is dropped by a playground recruit who has no business taking up space at a university, thrown by a player who actually thinks all the co-eds lust after him. Whew! Let me pause for breath here.
I try to beat back naivete like St. George did the dragon, though my outcome in much more in doubt. However, I do believe that if college sports became more about character and values development, Megan Haber would make at least enough to pay a month's taxes on Rocky Long's $4 million deal at San Diego State University.
The educational purpose of sports should be to create winners, and that doesn't necessarily require winning the game.
Out of respect for the enthusiasm of Megan Haber, I offer one final - !
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.