Sweet Victory

How Judy Sweet changed the game in collegiate athletics.

In 1974, UC San Diego and Dr. Howard F. Hunt, chair of physical education, made a nontraditional choice in selecting Judy Sweet as its athletic director. Sure, she was UC San Diego’s assistant athletic director at the time, but she was also only 27 years old, and moreover, she was the first woman ever to be named athletic director for a U.S. co-ed collegiate program.

Judy Sweet
Judy Sweet was the first woman ever to be named athletic director for a U.S. co-ed collegiate program.

This landmark came only two years after the signing of Title IX, which prevented discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. Sweet promptly set about using the new law to chart an ambitious course for our athletics programs—which at the time had large disparities in resources.

“There wasn’t very much for anybody, but the fact was that the men’s teams were getting far more than the lion’s share,” Sweet says. In some cases, men’s teams were receiving 10 times as much of an allotment as women’s.

Under Sweet’s leadership, UC San Diego athletics merged the resources, and to stay impartial, Sweet created formulas for resource distribution—starting with coaches’ salaries. “In many instances today, the coaches of men’s teams, particularly at large universities, get much higher salaries than women who coach the same sport,” Sweet says. “That wasn’t going to be the case at UCSD based on the formulas that I developed to make sure that coaches of men’s teams and coaches of women’s teams were treated equitably.”

She also created equitable equipment budgets between athletic teams. For example, men’s and women’s lacrosse teams use different equipment and have different rules, so budgets will have inherent differences. Yet this is opposed to previous years, when women were supplied with old or inferior sports equipment.

After leading the athletic program at UC San Diego, Sweet’s impact ultimately inspired change and transformation in athletics across the country when she became the first female president of the NCAA in 1991.

Not everyone was happy with Sweet taking the role, however. “I received a number of handwritten letters from people who were critical that I was taking away a job that rightfully belonged to a man,” Sweet recalls.

But she also received letters of support from those who never thought they would see a woman in such a leadership position. All of these letters—even the negative ones—motivated her to not just promote equity, but institutionalize it.

“We established the NCAA Gender Equity Task Force,” Sweet says. “And as a result, we made some significant strides in getting universities to do better with meeting the responsibilities of Title IX.”

By the early 2000s, Title IX was under attack by politicians trying to weaken it. Never one to sit on the sidelines, Sweet attended all the hearings held by the Commission on Opportunity in Athletics and helped defend the law as it was written.

Sweet continued to push the world of competitive sports: In 2003, she spearheaded the NCAA Women Coaches Academy and later co-founded WeCOACH, formerly the Alliance of Women Coaches, in 2011. Though Sweet has had the privilege, and sometimes the burden, of being the first woman in many roles, she hopes her legacy is one of ensuring accessibility to these same positions and resources.

“I’ve always said that being the first was just a matter of timing,” Sweet says. “The important thing is that I’m not the last.”