By Mike Pearson
dr Ellen Greaves was born a bit too early to have had the opportunity to perform as a varsity athlete for the University of Illinois. However, that doesn’t lessen the impact that she’s been able to make on behalf of women’s athletics and education in general during the 50-year period since her graduation from UIUC in 1972.
Though the youngster who grew up in Hinsdale didn’t have many chances herself to compete in sports during that pre-Title IX period, she’s been steadfastly determined in her role as an administrator to level the path for those who’ve followed in her footsteps .
“My mother, bless her heart, was not athletic at all, but she listened to every Cub game,” Greaves remembered. “She and another mother from my friendship group didn’t want us to not have an opportunity so they volunteered to be our softball coaches. Well, they were horrible as coaches, but they found a better person to coach us the second year.”
When Ellen got to Hinsdale Central High School, there was very little in terms of sports competition available to girls — a stark contrast to the ample opportunities offered to those of the opposite gender.
“We had a good intramural program for girls, but were limited to just a handful of tennis, badminton and archery matches,” said Greaves. “It was pretty insignificant. We had these play days when five or six schools would get together … play our games and then eat a bunch of cookies. That was pretty unsatisfactory as far as we were concerned.”
When a new physical education teacher came to Hinsdale in Greaves’ senior year (1968) — a year when she presided over the school’s Girls Athletic Association — the stakes rose significantly.
“Mrs. (Hildegard) Unison taught us power volleyball instead of back-yard volleyball,” Greaves said. “We thought we were hot stuff and we thought that if the boys can have tournaments, why can’t we? So we submitted paperwork to get approval from the IHSA (Illinois High School Association).”
A few days later, Greaves’ advisor got a call from the IHSA that told them that their request had been denied.
“Why not?,” Greaves asked her advisor. “She said ‘It’s because you’re girls. And if you insist on doing it, they’re going to punish the boys.’ Of course, later I realized what was going on. They were threatening to punish the boys to control the lack of opportunities for girls. For me, that was a pivotal moment. I vowed that if there was anything I could do to ensure that girls had a chance for opportunities, I would do it.”
Greaves matriculated at the University of Illinois during a time in history when students protested the war in Vietnam and fought for women’s rights.
“It was an incredible time to be in college,” she said. “I look it as a very positive, stimulating time. We went from having no student involvement in any university committees to having (representation) on the Board of Trustees.”
Academically, Greaves was enrolled in UI’s Department of Physical Education for Women. She participated in four club sports (golf, volleyball, basketball and field hockey). As a junior, with Dr. Nell Jackson serving as her academic advisor, she served as president of the Women’s Extramural Sports Association and played a major role in transforming WESA into the Women’s Intercollegiate Sports Association.
Mere weeks after Greaves received her bachelor’s degree in May of 1972, Title IX legislation passed.
“It was sort of like a time bomb,” she said. “Title IX was understated and not covered very much (by the media). I was anticipating some pushback because there was a two-year period when it went through an administrative process of defining what it meant. The NCAA proved me right when people realized what it could possibly mean for equal funding.”
From 1974 to 1979, Greaves studied for her doctorate degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She was then hired as UNCG’s Director of Campus Recreation and continued in that capacity until 1990. At that point, her career goals changed course, which allowed her to return to her roots in Champaign-Urbana.
“I felt that I’d done all that I could do in campus recreation,” Greaves said. “I consider myself to be a builder rather than someone who coasts. I love the research aspect of higher education and I felt that it was important that people were treated fairly. Going on to law school (at the University of Illinois) just made sense .”
After completing her degree in 1993, Greaves served as corporate counsel for the Illinois State Employees Association, then as the state leader for the Girl Scouts in Illinois, and then as executive director for the Professional Educators of North Carolina. Since 2007, she’s headed her own company in Raleigh, NC: ECG Mediation & Consulting Services.
Greaves has been particularly uplifted about the future of women’s athletics over the past several months.
“This past year has been really quite powerful,” she said. “Last March, during the NCAA Tournament, when that basketball player (University of Oregon’s Sedona Prince) videoed the weight rooms (displaying the inequities between the men’s and women’s work-out areas), I think it lit an incredible fire. Talk about a ticking time bomb. A lot of time, women have been taken advantage of because they didn’t know what disadvantage their programs were under when they were hired. Or maybe they were hired because they wouldn’t make waves. God bless (South Carolina women’s basketball coach) Dawn Staley; she won’t let that happen. We’re at a point where there could be a revelation of differences in recruiting budgets and travel budgets, for example. Some of it is that women don’t think expansively about how to spend money, and men do think expansively.”
A woman of action and purpose, Greaves recently created an endowment to support UI’s efforts to attract and retain outstanding faculty. Additionally, through that significant gift in her estate, Greaves will provide opportunities for students that have financial need.
“Rather than identifying a specific unit, I want to benefit the university as a whole,” she said.