Nicole Commissiong

Nicole is a Double Duck and former Track & Field star for UO. She is now the Associate Vice President, Chief Civil Rights Officer and Title IX Coordinator for UO, providing us with a unique perspective on Title IX and women's sports.

How did your involvement in sport prepare you for the role that you have now at the university, as well as previous roles that you’ve had throughout the years?

When I got involved with sport, one of the things I learned was to really push myself. Sports teach you to take on things that you’ve not done before, to challenge yourself and to commit to doing things that are hard. If you’re not willing to do that, at whatever level you’re at in sport, you’re not going to have success, because that’s what success in sport requires.

And it also teaches you to work through fear. Some things are hard and you have to get a little courage to go in and do the thing. And it also teaches resilience, right? If you are an athlete, sometimes things go really, really badly or not as planned. Sometimes you can fail spectacularly and you’re out there for all to see, and you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going. And if you aren’t willing to do that, then again, you can’t find success.

I think that it helped prepare me for this role because I deal with a lot of complex problems and challenging issues.

And sport also teaches you the true meaning of teamwork. So when you’re part of a team, each member of the team has a role to play and you depend on one another. You’re invested in the success of every member of the team, and you will do what you need to do to help your teammates.

And that’s all very true of the work that I do in my office. I work with a great team of people and there’s no way for me to do my job without them. And even though I am the one who runs the office, I am also completely reliant upon them. They’re critical to the success of the office. And then also there’s a larger team. If you are an athlete, there’s this team of people around you – coaches, athletic trainers, psychologists, people you might go talk to – to get help and support. And I think that’s also really true of my role on campus. So yes, there is everyone in the office and they’re critical to our collective success, and I work really closely with folks across campus to support students and respond to concerns that are brought forward by students and employees. And not a day goes by where I don’t reach out to, or have meetings with people on campus to look at addressing concerns that have been brought forward.

And so there’s the work that we do in our office as a team. And then there’s a broader group of people that are just as important to our office fulfilling our responsibility on campus.

How has Title IX helped to accelerate women’s sports over the years?

So I think it’s interesting, right? Cause there are women all around us who can still talk about, who remember a time, when Title IX passed. They were in college or maybe they were a little bit younger or maybe a little bit older, and they remember the change that started to happen when that law came in.

I think it paved the way for girls and women to have opportunities that did not exist prior to that. So now girls are participating in organized sport from a young age and they get all the benefits that young boys used to get. The teamwork, the physical development, the mental toughness, the resilience, the skill development, the confidence – all of those things that come from participating in sport are now available to girls who choose that path. Girls and women are now not just dreaming of possibly playing sports in college and professionally. All of those dreams would mostly not have been possible without Title IX, because if you don’t have girls participating from a young age, how are you going to have them participate in college? How are they going to make it to Olympic teams? And so it’s just broadened the opportunities for girls and women.

With so many women going to college and playing sports, that has led to the growth of professional teams. Even when I was in college (which is not so long ago I like to think!) I remember my friends who were playing basketball. Some of them wanted to play professionally, and there was no opportunity to do that in the United States.

So Women who wanted to play professionally, they would actually go overseas because they couldn’t play here, despite the fact that we had a whole NCAA organization around women’s sports. So that wouldn’t have happened without Title IX. And then we see the depth of talent, the number of available players increase. And it’s not that long ago, right? In the 2000’s is when that opportunity was starting, and that’s almost 30 years after the passage of Title IX! And so now we have a WNBA. If we didn’t have Title IX and elementary school sports, high school sports, and grassroots sports, we wouldn’t have a WNBA.

And in the last summer Olympics, almost 60% of the medals awarded to Americans were won by women. Without Title IX, that would not be true.

So Title IX was really the spark for this tremendous change. It doesn’t mean that all that could be accomplished has been accomplished, but I think sometimes when people run into things that they find frustrating, because there is so much opportunity now, there is no longer really a collective memory of what it was like when there were no opportunities. And so on this 50th anniversary, it is important to look back and realize that while we may not be where everyone would hope, truly just how far things have come for women’s athletics. And this is another opportunity to think about what’s next.

Can you touch on the differences of how Title IX affected black female athletes?

As opportunities for women have proliferated, they’ve proliferated for black women athletes. Women’s athletics has provided the opportunity for many who could not have gone to college to go to college and to gain access to an education and all that can come from an education.

And so I do think for many from underrepresented backgrounds, Title IX has really provided opportunities that truly would not otherwise have been available because paying for college, it does create a barrier for many. It would be a barrier for even more still.

From your point of view, what are those next steps necessary for continuing to accelerate women’s athletics?

I hope to see even more opportunities for women to participate in sport. Several years ago, I read a book about Joan Benoit. She was a phenomenal distance runner and she talked about the first time she ran the Boston Marathon. Someone (the race director) tried to physically remove her from the course because he could not conceive that a woman would dare run his race. And we are so, so far from there. So I hope to see that continue, to see women participating in sports that people might not currently really think women can participate in.

We have arms and legs just like our male counterparts and physical skill. So there isn’t a reason why any sport would be a barrier merely because it’s a given sport. So I hope to see opportunities for women grow.

I also hope we start to see more women in leadership positions within sport. More women as head coaches of teams, more women in positions of athletic directors, more women running the nonprofits and organizations that are so critical to the growth of sport at the youth level and beyond. There are now generations of women who have participated in sport, and so we should be seeing greater representation in those leadership positions.

Representation is critical. That’s really the only way that you ever have real inclusion is if you have representation of all people. Given the numbers of participation in sport, if almost 60% of medals are being won by women, we should be seeing more women coaches. We should be seeing more women running organizations.

And my question would be also, why are there so few women coaching men? There should be more women coaches and that doesn’t just mean more women coaches for women, that means more women coaches. If men can coach women, why can’t women coach men?

We don’t see a lot of women coaching football and there’s no football for women in college, there’s no professional football league. But if girls start playing football at young ages, maybe that will change. And that’s the thing, you can’t start with an NFL for women, but you could have youth sports football for girls, and maybe that grows and becomes something 10, 15, 20 years from now. I don’t know what sport girls want to play in masses, but they should be able to play any sport that they want to play.

Can you tell us about a time in your athletic and/or professional career where someone stepped up in support of you? What does that experience and relationship mean to you and how did that support help you achieve your goals?

So, what would have been my senior year of college, I was pretty significantly injured and had to have surgery. And I had completed two majors in my four years at the U of O, so there was no reason to continue as an undergraduate student. I’d always thought about law school, off and on since high school, and the Faculty Athletic Representative at the time for the university was Jim O’Fallon. I got to know him because he came to track meets and I met him, I talked with him, and he had always been really supportive of me. He really encouraged me to pursue that interest I had in law school. And I think I will just never forget how kind he was, how generous he was with his time, and how supportive he was.

And when I graduated from law school, he and his wife, Ellen, even hosted a graduation party for me and a track teammate and peer from law school at their home. And it just meant the world to have the support of someone like him who was so brilliant, so accomplished, and so kind, and really helps you believe in yourself. And when I was thinking about law school, it’s not that I thought I couldn’t go to law school, but I was very uncertain whether I could go to law school and do my last year of track (it’s probably self-evident why I was doubtful about those two things)! And he said this is within you, you can do this. And while I admit I was a little sleep deprived that year, I did it. I came back that year, I did my last year of track and my first year of law school. And I just don’t think it would have happened that way without his support and encouragement.

Thinking about that experience with Jim and our slogan for Women In Flight’s campaign, what do you think of when you hear that message – Go Do Anything?

I think it means that women should believe in themselves and reject whatever limits others may try to impose. And if someone makes the mistake of underestimating you, lean into what you want to accomplish even more. Women make up half the world’s population or more. The idea that women shouldn’t be fully participating in all aspects of the world means that the world would be missing out on their contributions.

And so I think that people, women, everyone should go out without regard to gender, race, or any other characteristic. Go out there and do the things that you want to do and find the people who will support you in accomplishing your goals.

Do you have any other experiences, words of wisdom, or comments that you want to share?

Sometimes when we talk about women’s empowerment, we often talk about positional power, women in positions of leadership and that’s important. That representation, visibility, and the ability to contribute at that high level is important.

But I also think it’s even more important to recognize that every day women contribute to all aspects of life. And so don’t believe that you have to be in a position of power to be a leader, to have something to contribute.

Every single woman out there has something to contribute. They contribute in everyday life. We will often read athletes saying things like “I come from a single parent household”, and “but for my mother, I wouldn’t…”. And it doesn’t matter if that person’s mother worked in hourly wage jobs that were not high paying, that parent’s, that mother’s contribution to her child’s success, that is so meaningful.

And so whatever it is, whether you are in the workplace or not, those contributions make the world go round.