A coach. A hall-of-famer. A fighter. A friend.
Even those who bemoan a sue-happy country can appreciate the time Jo Washburn helped sue her own university.
She was, among many attributes, a fighter. A fighter for equality, to be sure.
On September 15, 2020, she gave up the terrestrial fight, leaving behind friends, loved ones, and a legacy that transcends Sport’s traditional focus on the wins-losses columns.
Jo is a member of the WSU Athletics Hall of Fame. She taught P.E. She coached women’s intramurals. She coached things like skiing and volleyball. In fact, skiing was her favorite… her No. 1 sport. Her career at Washington State University lasted almost 40 years. That included serving as the women’s athletic director from 1965-1982. Yes, you read that correctly: she was a women’s athletic director. There were once two separate and, as it turned out, very unequal departments. One for men. One for women.
Jo 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 Washington State Magazine‘s Winter 2009 feature.
“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.’ ”
Standing up to WSU’s own administration when it was required wasn’t the end. She continued to play an active role with the College of Education, helping found the Sport Management program in the early 1980s. At one point, there were concerns the program would be dropped due to budget cuts. Instead it has become a thriving program.
“It’s a worthy major and a fun major,” said Jo, who retired in 2004 but remained in Pullman. “And minorities are well represented in Sport Management, which is one of those things we like to brag about.”
Sport Management is often incorrectly called “Sports Management”, with an “s”. The reason Jo gave not only explains the program name itself, but gives some insight into the onus behind her fight for equality.
“Sports refers to baseball, football, horse racing and such,” she said. “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.”
Colleagues and friends speak
- “I’m saddened by the news of Professor Jo Washburn’s passing. Jo elevated WSU, the Sport Management program and her students through her passion for teaching. Her inspiration will live on through all of those that she taught. I’m fortunate to be able to carry her influence throughout my journey. Rest in Peace Jo.” – Chuck Arnold, President, Seattle Seahawks and First & Goal Inc.; WSU Sport Management ’93.
- “To say that we would not be here without the tireless work of Jo Washburn and her contemporaries is not an overstatement. As a former Director of Women Athletics at Washington State University who then became a full-time educator, Washburn helped establish state-of-the-art bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in sport management designed to help students succeed in the field. The civil rights battles she fought with colleagues ensured the program would impart high ethical standards to students. Her legacy lives on – not just in the work of her former students and the curricula she inspired, but also through the endowed scholarship fund she generously co-created.”I often draw inspiration from Jo’s work when contemplating how to best prepare students – and future professionals – to respond to the challenges currently faced by sport managers at all levels. Some of them have changed and evolved, so my goal is to prepare students to succeed in 2030 and beyond. Jo’s decades of dedicated service make this possible.” – Dr. Simon Ličen, Associate Professor and Assistant Chair, Department of Educational Leadership and Sport Management.
- “Jo was my amazing academic advisor during my time as a student at WSU. She cared about her students and it showed every day. It was an honor to be mentored by Jo and grateful for the impact she had for women in sports. Her legacy will live on!” – Catherine Walker
- “Jo (and Sue Durrant) were gracious enough to invite me for a graduate assistant position during my Ph.D studies, even though I was not a sport management major. They valued my public school coaching and teaching experiences and thought that I would do well teaching some of their courses. It was my first experience at teaching “university level students “ but true to form, Jo (in her ever present calm demeanor) said that I would be just fine and with some wonderful mentoring – she was right and… I have not looked back after a nearly 25 year career as a professor who loves to teach. She was not a micro-manager, she gave you room to create and develop into who you were to become. Jo I will miss you and thanks for seeing the best in me!” – Phillip E. Morgan, Associate Professor, Department of Kinesiology and Educational Psychology
- “Jo Washburn was an influential leader in women’s intercollegiate sports, not only at WSU, but throughout the northwest and beyond, as well as a good friend. As I was named Head of Women’s Athletics at the University of Idaho in 1974, Jo was a tremendous mentor and friend in our pursuit/fight for equity for women in sport on our campuses and the northwest, and beyond. Jo impacted the lives of so many women, and women in sport through her courage, leadership, and diligence to provide equal opportunity. Her legacy at WSU is one for the ages. Rest in peace, dear Jo.” – Kathy Clark, Sr. Assoc. Director of Athletics, University of Idaho (RETIRED)
- “I’m sad to hear about Jo’s passing. She was passionate, resilient and her fight for equity in intercollegiate athletics was remarkable. She’s always held a special place in my heart having overlapped with both me and my mother during our respective times as students at WSU, and as women who worked in WSU Athletics. Her influence on WSU Sport Management was tremendous – I guarantee every Sport Management graduate from her era has a Jo Washburn story! May she rest in peace.” – Alison (Keck) Metzger-Jones, WSU Sport Management 2003
- “Jo was a welcoming force for a newly minted older assistant professor. My office was three doors down from hers–two Sport Management, one Athletic Administration, me, and a couple of graduate student offices. The rest of the faculty who worked in my program had offices up stairs. Jo knew the workings of WSU, showed me the ropes, and introduced me to faculty across campus I probably would otherwise never have met. She took Marv and me into her home and into her circle of friends. Her Super Bowl parties were the only ones I ever attended where people actually watched the game. She and Sue taught us how to make Cherry Bounce. She was a strong woman with a gentle soul. I will miss her.” – Mimi Wolverton
- “Although I wasn’t fortunate enough to meet Joanne Washburn, I have GREATLY benefited from her amazing COURAGE to fight for gender equity in sport. THANKYOU for paving the way so that young women can dream big and pursue greatness in the game we love!” – Laurie Koehn
During this difficult time, faculty and staff may wish to contact the Employee Assistant Program 24/7: http://hrs.wsu.edu/resources/employee-assistance-program/.
Each year, a Sport Management student is the recipient of the Washburn/Durrant Sport Management Endowed Scholarship. Gifts to support Sport Management students would continue Jo’s amazzing legacy and help the lives of students, of whom Jo is very fond.