'Girls' rules' played in Iowa spark basketball brouhaha
Des Moines — Almost no one in Iowa escapes the controversy surrounding girls' high school basketball in this state. The dispute, unlike those elsewhere, does not concern the girls' opportunities to participate in the sport, but the rules of the game. Iowa and Oklahoma are the only two states that retain the six-girl, split-court game, allowing a girl to play either offense or defense, but not both. Girls' teams in the 48 other states play the five-player game.
The conflict usually reaches the boiling point during the five-day Iowa state tournament, scheduled this year March 10-14, when an expected 90,000 spectators will flock here to the capital.
"The three-on-three game is tightly woven into the life of the state, and people fear there will be a drop in attendance if the rules are changed [to the five-player game]," said Carole Baumgarten, women's coach at Drake University in Des Moines."Iowa used to be a leader in girls' sports, but in three or four years, the Iowa girls will be buried because they can't go on to play basketball after high school without problems."
The problems of pursuing the sport after high school, magnified by the burgeoning number of college scholarships offered to women athletes, stem from the Iowa rules.
Since no one is allowed to cross the center line, the three guards never shoot. Their free throws are taken by the forwards on the other side of the court. Forwards get little experience playing defense, because after a basket is scored, the opposition takes the ball back to the center circle to resume play.
Other unique rules limit a player to two dribbles, allow the ball to be held no more than three seconds, and permit six, instead of five, personal fouls before disqualification. Touching or trying up the ball is also disallowed unless an opponent is in the act of shooting, starting her dribble, or positioned in the free-throw lane.
"When you shoot here it's like taking a free throw, because there's almost no contact; the girls aren't aggressive like they are when they play boys' rules," said Michele Manzi, a junior forward on the Bettendorf team and a transfer from Michigan, where girls play fullcourt. "I like the boys' game. There's more action. You mostly just stand around in the girls' game. I'm still not used to it and rush my shots."
Soon after James Naismith invented basketball in 1892, Senda Berenson Abbott of Smith College added the girls' modifications "to guard against physical exertion of individual players, to eliminate 'star' players, to encourage combination plays and equalization of teamwork, and to discourage rough play."
The six-player game persisted throughout the country for quite a while, but eventually girls' programs in most states switched over to the five-player version. A successful national experiment along these lines was launched in the 1971-72 season, and now Iowa and Oklahoma are the only holdouts.
Girls' basketball in Iowa goes back to 1898, when Dubuque High School fielded a team that played one game. The first Iowa tournament was held in Des Moines in 1920, with Correctionville beating Nevada 11-4 in the final.
That low score is not indicative of Iowa's modern game. The six-player, split-court game, in fact, was revised to protect the shooter and bolster the scoring in 1954, when E. Wayne Cooley assumed the powerful post of executive secretary of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union.
"People want to see scoring, and that's one of the reasons we draw such big crowds," said Cooley's assistant, Bob Smiley, who posted a 116-11 coaching record in five years at Guthrie Center High. "Five-player just cannot draw like we can, because they try to play the same game as the boys.
"Realistically, the girls just can't play as well in a game that involves jumping ability and strength, and if compared, will fall short. . . . Three-on-three is cleaner and lets the girls do what they do best. Let's face it, rebounding is unattractive. The boy's game causes congestion under the boards and never puts the girls in the best atmosphere."
Like Cooley, Smiley contends the Iowa girls' game is tailored to the majority of high school athletes, while admitting that Iowa guards lose out on athletic scholarships.
"Less than 1 percent of our girls will earn scholarships," he said, "so we design our program for the [remaining] 99 percent. Recruiters from all over the country come here looking for shooters. The guards won't get scholarships, but then when does your fourth- leading scorer on a boys' team get a scholarship?"
The Iowa game has produced some tremendous shooters. Denise Long, a 1969 graduate of Union-Whitten High, average 69 points a game her senior season and holds the national career scoring record with 6,250 points. Molly (Machine Gun) Bolin, the co- Most Valuable Player in the Women's Basketball League (WBL) in 1980 when she played for the now-defunct Iowa Cornets, also hails from Iowa.
"The six-player game does produce some pure shooters, because that's all a forward practices for two hours a day . . . ," said Baumgarten, who coached the US women's squad at the 1979 spartakiad Games in Moscow and served on the selection committee for the 1980 women's US Olympic team. "But they're very, very, very weak at the transition game, are the worst rebounders, and are not used to contact. The Iowa player cannot contribute to the whole game, has never seen a zone defense or offense, and suddenly is thrown into a situation where she doesn't have time to stop and think about how she's playing."
Baumgarten said she has no time to teach Iowa guards to shoot and believes the girls' game, as such, should not be included in the high school curriculum.
"The taxpayers' money is being used to teach this game and it is not educational," she explained. "Iowa players can't even intelligently watch a five-on-five game on television, and the rest of the world is playing five- on-five. It's a shame, because Iowa used to be a leader in girls' sports. People are accustomed to seeing girls work hard on the farm. There's always been a positive attitude toward the girl athlete. It's not uncommon to meet an 80-year-old great-grandmother who played girls' high school basketball."
The girl athlete in Iowa has always earned respect, and the state basketball tournament is famous for the number of spectators it attracts, often outdrawing the boys'. Cooley is concerned that lucrative gate receipts will dwindle if the rules are changed. The girls' athletic union makes about $700,000 on the tournament, which culminates after sectional, district, and regional playoffs. This revenue supports the girls' championship tournaments in 19 other sports.
Manzi, who has switched back and forth several times as her family moved between Michigan and Iowa, says, "It's a lot harder to change from girls' to guys' [rule] -- especially if you're a guard." But she notes there are problems the other way, too.
"The hardest part [in switching back to girls' rules] is the two dribbles and having to stop at half court. It's so frustrating. You dribble twice, see an opening, and you can't do anything about it.
"I think Iowa should change its girls' rules as soon as possible. Even if it hurts the juniors and seniors now, it would at least help the seventh-and eighth-graders."
One extremely important part of the Iowa six-player game is tradition, which has seen it handed down from generation to generation.
Until 1970, the game was dominated by Iowa's small agricultural communities. The high schools in many such towns are activity centers, and the sports teams draw tremendous crowds. Only in recent years have the state's larger schools added programs in accordance with equal-oppotunity legislation.
This tradition and the male-dominated Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union resist the change that other states have made, and create the emotional debate. Proponents of the six-player game campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment last fall on the grounds that it might endanger the six-player game. Controversy also flared around interpreptations of federal legislation (Title IX) requiring equal opportunities for men and women. Iowans, long subjected to federal farming regulations, do not want the federal government telling them how to run their high school sports programs.
"I'm pessimistic about the chances for change because of the power of the small Iowa towns and the new swing to conservatism," Baumgarten said. "It's the good Iowa athlete who is hurt by having to stop at the center line and watch her team lose the game at the other end of the court. And it's too bad, because the recruitment out of Iowa would be tremendous if the rules were changed."