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In Their Own Words: Becky Oakes – Title IX Trailblazer from Missouri

By Cody Porter and Lindsey Atkinson on December 20, 2021 hst Print

Becky Oakes is a retired teacher, coach, athletic director, official, executive director of the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) and NFHS director of sports. In 1982, she joined the MSHSAA staff as an assistant executive director. She was promoted to the role of associate executive director in 1990 before ascending to executive director in 1992. In that leadership role, Oakes served as just the second female to be named director of a state high school association on a full-time basis. In 1993, she began her term on the NFHS Board of Directors, which, in 1996, resulted in her becoming its first female president.

From 2006 to 2017, Oakes served as a director of sports at the NFHS, overseeing track and field, cross country, volleyball, gymnastics, water polo, and swimming and diving. In addition, Oakes directed the NFHS Task Force on Inclusion and created the NFHS Inclusion of Students with Disabilities Team.

A native of Rolla, Missouri, Oakes graduated from Rolla High School in 1972. She went on to pursue a degree in physical education from Southwest Missouri State University, where she also participated in volleyball, softball and field hockey.

Upon graduating, Oakes began her teaching career with Waynesville Public Schools. It was there she also became involved in coaching, leading Waynesville High School’s volleyball, basketball, and track and field programs. Oakes was twice named Outstanding Track Coach of the Year by the Missouri Track and Cross-Country Coaches Association, and later became the school’s first female athletic director. While coaching, Oakes also served as a MSHSAA volleyball official and an ASA softball umpire.

Oakes remains active in the interscholastic activities space. She currently volunteers for the MSHSAA, co-hosts the Talking Women’s Sports Radio Show, participates in a high school mentoring program and spends time with her two grand-daughters.

Question: When you got to high school, what did athletic competition look like for you and your friends? What kind of opportunities were available for you at that age?
Oakes: Through high school? Zero opportunities. We arrived right before Title IX was implemented. We didn’t even have intramurals until my senior year. Anything we played, we played outside of school; we played on a traveling softball team. There was a group of us who were really lucky, and it started when we were in junior high. There were some young teachers that loved just playing basketball, playing volleyball. They would open the gym and allow a group of about six or eight of us to come in and play basketball and volleyball with them. They kind of gave us an opportunity that we didn’t have anywhere else. During our senior year, we discussed with our administration on numerous occasions the need to have girls sports. So, we did get intramurals at that time. After we graduated the next year, the high school put in girls sports.

Question: So, you were able to form another group of women, who were all young girls at that time, who were your age and were all kind of fighting for the same thing, same opportunity?
Oakes: We were sassy, feisty girls, and who were some really good athletes at that time in our class, the class above us and the class below us. Everybody just kind of banded together and our parents were with us. They kind of said, “Go for it,” and left it up to us to do that. We just tried; really we tried every avenue. We were all active in student government, so we tried to go kind of that route with it. We met with the principal to talk about it and, eventually, they put in intramurals. It’s just in our particular area of the state, girls sports were not popular.

Question: In 1972, when Title IX was passed, you were entering your freshman year at Southwest Missouri State University. What impact did that piece of legislation have on you?
Oakes: I went to Missouri State University, which was Southwest Missouri State University at that time. When we started, they had had women’s sports, but they were a member of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), which was kind of the precursor to the NCAA doing anything with women’s sports. So, the sports programs existed. During the summer, there was the Springfield Foremost Dairy fast-pitch softball team. They were kind of the premier women’s softball team in the state of Missouri. A lot of players on that team played softball for the university. My dad would take me to tournaments, watch, play and everything like that. It just seemed like a natural fit. Scholarships didn’t exist at the time so you could try out for these teams. I met a senior and she kind of took me under her wing. She said, “Come with me. You’re going to try out for field hockey. And another one said, “Come on, we’re going to play volleyball.” Then, of course, there was softball. At that time, you didn’t have to really specialize. You could play more than one sport while in college. It was older female students in the school that encouraged several of us to play. We got the opportunity, and it just kind of kept growing from there.

Question: While attending Missouri State University, when do you feel like you started to see the impact of Title IX?
Oakes: I think we began to see it as I was coming into my freshman year of college. That’s when it really began to settle in. I feel very good about the experiences that I had there and the way the university treated the female athletes at that time. I mean, there was lots to be done. Don’t get me wrong there. But they weren’t, you know, putting thumbs down on things to do that. So, I think my introduction to Title IX was a positive one. We weren’t fighting, we were changing things. That’s when I think I really saw it – while in college and through the opportunities that we got to play.

Question: Your time spent teaching coincided with contributions as a coach and official. In those positions, what do you feel like you learned the most from the athletes you impacted that you carried through your career?
Oakes: I think the combination of coaching and officiating made me better at both, and made both more enjoyable because I had what I would say kind of a larger picture of what was going on. That was always a big part of my coaching – to make sure that my athletes knew the rules. If you know the rules, you can play farther – you can take it to the edge and still be playing within the spirit of the rules and things like that. I learned something new from my athletes all the time.

Question: What made you decide to become an athletic director, which took you out of the classroom and into the world of administration?
Oakes: That’s sort of a strange story. I thought at one point in time, I wanted to be a college track and field coach. That was my long-term goal. I then had a superintendent who convinced me otherwise and to instead become the athletic director at the high school. That led to me getting into administration and assistant principal roles. But, I never gave up teaching. That was part of the deal: I would teach two hours a day and I could coach two sports. If I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t do the other. We had this agreement that as long as I was doing satisfactory work for the superintendent and my building principal, I could continue that schedule. As long as I wanted that schedule, I could keep it and so that was really how we worked through it.

Question: How many other female administrators were in the MSHSAA office when you joined their staff in 1982?
Oakes: I was it. It was an experience to work with athletic administrators and principals across the state, to get used to working with a female in that role, to get used to doing football playoffs. You’re giving them their schedules and telling them what to do. If they didn’t like it, they would say, “Well, let me talk to Jack.” That was my boss, Jack Miles. I would say, “No. This is my responsibility. Here’s what we have. If you need something, just let me know.” So, it was a learning experience for both me and the schools. I had really good people to work with in the office who, quite honestly, had my ear, had my back, and were teaching me how to be a good activities association administrator, how to do things the right way, and to also really understand the history and the philosophy of why we do what we did.

Question: Being one of the first females to climb the ranks of administration, did you ever have any mentors during your early career?
Oakes: I think so. I would say this to anybody, if you limit yourself to only learning from females or males you’re only going to get half the opportunities that would come knocking at your door. You hopefully just surround yourself with strong people and learn those things and become better at what you do. I have to say my mother was huge in what I did. There was also my field hockey coach and my softball coach, as well as my volleyball coach at the university. They were all very strong women, who were all very confident in what they did. They were very much about promoting the athlete as a full individual, not only how we played, but how we were growing up and what we were doing. I think as you go, you find those individuals and administrators in school. There weren’t very many females in school for me either. You would find teachers, you would find coaches that work together. When I started with the association, there were several of us, especially in Section 5, that all started in the business together. We grew and we helped each other; we had so many things in common. I think we became mentors and role models for each other.

Question: When you look back at your list of accomplishments, what stands out to you as the most significant and why?
Oakes: I think the biggest thing was that I created and supported opportunities for a lot of different kids to be involved in the school district where I taught and coached. It was a military school. We had a lot of kids who had challenging home lives. Some of the teachers and coaches weren’t real keen on putting up with some of the issues that were there. I had all kinds of kids that were in my programs. We learned how to deal with things and respect their different cultures because they came from all over the world. The goal wasn’t to ever make them like me. It was out of respect for their culture. Here is why we need to do this. This is what will help us be successful and win the game, or whatever the case may be. With the MSHSAA, I think the biggest accomplishments where we made so many strides in sportsmanship. We created opportunities for schools to step forward to self-report violations. People would say, “Oh, they don’t do that.” They do that if you if you encourage them along the way and you let them take part in the decision-making of what should take place. I think those two things were extremely important and are the foundation of why we do what we do. Coming to the Federation, I think probably one of the most rewarding things – and there were many – was the inclusion program.