Jo Washburn’s journey to the Washington State University Athletic Hall of Fame — she’s one of 31 pioneer Cougars about to be inducted — began when she was an outdoorsy girl in Vermont. Along the way, she helped expand athletic opportunities for American women and founded WSU’s Sport Management Program.

Young Joanne skied, of course, and played basketball in high school. At the University of Connecticut, she played field hockey, basketball, softball and majored in physical education and education. She taught in Vermont for a couple of years, then headed west to earn a master’s degree from the WSU College of Education. After another brief teaching gig in Moses Lake, she joined the WSU faculty in 1965.

Jo Washburn
Jo Washburn (Bob Hubner photo)

Jo taught P.E. She coached women’s intramurals. And, as assistant director for intercollegiate sports, she watched the on-campus women competitors grow into off-campus teams. But in those days, WSU women’s athletics was a second-class affair, as recounted in History was made…The fight for equity for women’s athletics in Washington:

“The athletes had to carpool to away games and sleep four to a hotel room to save money. They had to buy their own uniforms. They helped set up spectator seating for their meets. And they trained only when the facilities weren’t being used by the men’s teams. Few, if any, received athletic scholarships.”

The female students, Jo and the other coaches tried everything possible in the 1970s to get the equal resources promised under state and federal law. Frustrated, they finally sued. And won. Blair vs. Washington State University became a landmark women’s rights case, setting a precedent for all public four-year colleges and universities in the state.

As Jo told Washington State Magazine, it wasn’t easy or comfortable suing the university. “People would come up and talk to you, but they wouldn’t do it overtly. They’d do it quietly. ‘We support you, but don’t tell anyone.’ ”

Jo says she’s gratified that WSU women’s teams seem well supported these days. She is also pleased that the Sport Management Program, for which she was founding director in the  early 1980s, is thriving. After concerns that the program would be dropped because of budget cuts, it is instead growing by adding an online master’s degree option.

“It’s a worthy major and a fun major,” says Jo, who retired in 2004 but remains in Pullman. “And minorities are well represented in sport management, which is one of those things we like to brag about.”

And why is it called “sport” management instead of “sports” management? Inquiring minds want to know. Sports, Jo answers, refers baseball, football, horse racing and such. But sport, that’s a social institution. Part of the culture. “Sport management means you’re involved in the whole kit and caboodle, not one sport.”