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Support for Bona women shows status change

All they did was win. Pundits tried to explain why the St. Bonaventure women's basketball team wasn't that good, but the Bonnies paid no attention and just kept on winning. They rolled through their nonconference schedule, notching some quality wins along the way. Then they started winning consistently in the Atlantic 10, one of the best conferences in the women's game.

And a funny thing started to happen. Fans were getting indignant with the national media. Why hadn't the Bonnies cracked the Associated Press Top 25? Why were they still receiving so few votes? What did they have to do to prove themselves worthy? Social media sites were on fire every Monday afternoon after the poll was released.

When was the last time a women's basketball team in Western New York elicited this type of widespread support? Never. The Big 4 historical landscape is dotted with some fantastic women's basketball teams but the backing has always been muted.

While the Bonnies set program records while going 31-4, making the A-10 tournament finals, getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16, what has happened in recent years in the stands is the most intriguing.

People cared about this women's basketball team. They cared enough to fire off angry tweets and post about being slighted on Facebook. (Hell hath no fury like a Bona alum scorned.) They cared enough to fire off emails to head coach Jim Crowley with congratulations and suggestions about playing zone defense, even though the Bonnies hadn't played a zone seriously since Thomas Merton was teaching English on campus.

Examine the social media and you'll see tweets between the men's and women's players offering mutual support, motivation and stress-relieving inside jokes. Once the men's team had its NCAA tournament run end, two of the players made the drive to Raleigh, N.C. to cheer on the women in the Sweet 16.

Sound normal?

None of this would have happened 10, or even five, years ago.

Part of the hullabaloo of support for the St. Bonaventure women's basketball team was born of success. Win and you're relevant. And the Bonnies did that with three straight 20-win seasons and three straight WNIT appearances before this past magical season.

But in another light, the support of fans, the community and the men's team is part of the legacy of Title IX.

Title IX and opportunity in sport is quantifiable. Researchers have plenty of data that show why sports are good for girls and how opportunities to play sports and receive scholarships improve women's general lot in life. The data is important. The data helps shape public policy decisions, which affect how opportunities are created and distributed in educational settings.

But there is a legacy to Title IX that goes deeper than the numbers.

In the 1980s, females had limited opportunities to play varsity high school sports and earn college athletic scholarships. But few outside of friends and family took their games seriously. Few took women who even talked about sports seriously. We were still largely an anomaly, a nice feature story but one that didn't necessarily focus on actual athletic accomplishments.

Women continued to play. They pushed their own limits. They demanded opportunities and made the most of them. Female athletes may still toil in the shadows and perform for sparser crowds compared to their male counterparts, but male players know the girls are for real. They might not dunk as often but they know their hoops. They're part of the family. When the men's and women's teams are talking smack on an equal footing about the NBA playoffs during summer school pickup games, a cultural shift has taken place.

Attitudes take multiple generations to change. In the 40 years since Title IX became law, a women's basketball team from the middle-of-nowhere New York inspired its alumni and community to hop on the bandwagon. Women's sports may still lag behind the men in opportunities and attention, but no longer are they irrelevant.