As now-retired Bangor Daily News reporter Joni Averill sees it, things have gotten much better for women and girls in athletics in the 43 years since she became the first journalist in Maine to solely cover women’s sports.
But at the same time, there’s still more that needs to change.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Averill, who last month was named one of the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame ’s Legends of the Game. “People are still worried about how someone looks or does their hair. There’s still a lot of inequality. But we’re getting there. And look how far we’ve come.”
For 16 years between 1979 and 1995, Averill wrote about the women and girls in Maine who were increasingly getting involved in sports following Title IX, the landmark civil rights legislation prohibiting gender discrimination in public schools that passed 50 years ago.
She covered everything from scrappy girls teams at far-flung high schools like East Grand and Ashland, to Maine basketball phenom Cindy Blodgett, to professional athletes like Olympic marathon runner Joan Benoit Samuelson and Bangor-raised LPGA golfer Sandra Palmer.
“There were so many stories to tell,” Averill said. “Stories that really had never been told before.”
As a child growing up in South Paris, Averill always wanted to be a journalist like Brenda Starr, the glamorous reporter in the long-running comic strip. In high school in the late 1950s, she wrote regular stories for the Advertiser Democrat in nearby Norway, and for a little while produced a Saturday morning broadcast for local radio station WKTQ, all about the goings-on in local high schools.
Averill attended the University of Maine, where she wanted to study journalism, but her adviser told her that the media was “no place for a woman.” She studied sociology instead, and married Talbot “Toby” Averill, her high school sweetheart. They had two kids, Steven and Susan.
“I was very happy to be a housewife, and to volunteer in the community,” Averill said. “But I was always writing the newsletters for organizations. I was always a communications person. That’s been in me since I was very young.”
In 1979, her big break into journalism came after a chance discussion with BDN publisher Richard Warren, who mentioned to Averill that legendary BDN sports editor Bud Leavitt wanted to hire someone to cover girls’ and women’s sports. Leavitt and Warren knew Averill, a skilled writer and avid sports fan, would be just right for the job.
“As Bud said, he wanted to do something about the ‘woman problem,’” Averill said. “Women would take the sports pages, and outline all the stuff about boys in blue, and all the stuff about girls in pink, and there’d be hardly any pink. Bud knew there was a problem, and they needed to correct that problem.”
Title IX became the impetus for a considerable increase in girls’ and women’s sports in high schools and public universities nationwide. By the late 1970s, nearly every high school in Maine had multiple girls’ sports teams competing with each other — and yet, coverage of girls’ sports in statewide media was virtually nonexistent.
Averill would change that.
Averill began covering girls’ and women’s sports in Maine in 1979. She also started writing a sports column called “The Other Half,” which would run for the next 16 years. In it, she provided a voice for a generation of young Maine women who were staking their claim as athletes, right alongside young men.
Though Leavitt on more than one occasion referred to himself in his columns as a “chauvinist,” his actions in the newsroom belied that sentiment. For Averill, he was her No. 1 champion, an advocate both for her and her work.
“Bud told me to go visit every high school in the BDN’s readership area, so that when I wrote about a school, I’d know what their gyms were like, what the town was like. He was my mentor. He supported me when my husband died. I learned so much from him,” Averill said, referring to the sudden passing of her husband, Toby, in 1980. She has since remarried, to Ralph White.
In addition to tracking scores, plays and the latest skilled athlete to take the field or the court, Averill wrote about issues facing female athletes, like the inappropriately skimpy outfits some young cheerleaders wore, or some female athletes’ experience with amenorrhea — when their periods stop for months or even years due to intense exercise. She even threw in a few things for parents of athletes, like a primer on how to get stains out of Bangor High’s white football pants.
In 1995, Averill was reassigned from the sports desk to write a community news column, which ran for another 16 years before she retired in 2011.
Today, Averill maintains a busy schedule as a retiree, volunteering with local organizations, and skiing, golfing and playing bridge. Though she said she’s honored to be included in the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame, she said she always remembers the advice Leavitt gave her more than 40 years ago.
“He told me, ‘Joni, you don’t write for prizes. You write for people,’” she said. “That’s the thing I’m proud of — that I got to tell people’s stories.”
The Maine Basketball Hall of Fame is looking for stories from Maine athletes, coaches and fans about the impact of Title IX for a future exhibit; submissions are being accepted on its website.