Calling Pat Summitt not just “the all-time winningest” NCAA coach (male or female) but also “someone who is willing to speak so openly and courageously about her battle with Alzheimer’s,” President Obama announced he will award her the Presidential Medal of Freedom later this year.
Summitt, 59, has coached the University of Tennessee’s Lady Volunteers for 38 years, winning 1,098 games while losing just 208 for an impressive .840 average. Oh, yes, and she racked up eight national championships and a long list of regional titles along the way.
Earlier this week, she stepped aside to become the school's “head coach emeritus” (Latin scholars might insist on the feminine “emerita,” but the beloved Summitt could probably get away with calling herself King of the Courts for Life). She’ll stay relatively involved with the Lady Vols but cede major coaching duties to her longtime assistant Holly Warlick.
In announcing that he would honor Summitt, Obama also noted the approach of the 40th anniversary of the signing of Title IX, a civil rights measure that barred colleges and universities that received federal funds from discriminating in several areas, including women’s athletics.
That did not sit well with many lawmakers, coaches and alumni back in 1972. They couldn’t bear the thought of diverting any money for their male jocks in order to make sure women got, if not an altogether level playing field, then at least a chance to do more than twirl batons and do that cheerleader thang during halftime.
“Summitt’s remarkable career reflects her rightful place in history as an unparalleled figure in women’s team sports,” Obama said.
Honoring the supreme Lady Vol is a very smart move for Obama, who loves to shoot hoops with his inner circle and do his March Madness brackets. This is, after all, a campaign year, and at the moment the president is outpolling presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney among women.
Summitt is not only a working mom but has also been a mother figure to hundreds of her own players and a sterling role model to female athletes and sports fans across the country.
She may not have enlisted in the gender wars, but the White House and Obama’s strategists know a brilliant move when they see it.
By the time the awards ceremony is held later this year, candidate Obama will be able to score points with an impressive array of interest groups, from which other winners have been chosen.
They include classical music lovers (cellist Yo-Yo Ma), modern art devotees (Jasper Johns), Republicans (George H.W. Bush), internationalists and feminists (German Chancellor Angela Merkel), civil rights activists (Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)), environmentalists (Natural Resources Defense Council co-founder John H. Adams), poetry lovers (Maya Angelou), tax-the-rich champions (billionaire investor/philanthropist Warren Buffett), Jewish voters (Polish-born Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein), Hispanic voters (Latina civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez), baseball and basketball fans (Stan “The Man” Musial and Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell), mental health advocates (Very Special Arts founder Jean Kennedy Smith) and labor unionists (John J. Sweeney, former AFL-CIO president).
There will also be a posthumous award given to Tom Little, an optometrist murdered by the Taliban in 2010 in Afghanistan while helping villagers as part of a large medical mission.
Not surprisingly, most of attention from the White House went to the winningest NCAA coach, who learned of her selection last week.
“Off the court, Pat’s work as a spokesperson in the fight against Alzheimer's through the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund is truly inspirational. The Pat Summitt Foundation will make grants to nonprofits to provide education and awareness, support to patients and families, and research to prevent, cure and ultimately eradicate early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.”
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com writer whose work has also appeared in the New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, as well as Town &Country, More and Washingtonian magazines. She is at work on a memoir.