Because of Title IX: Deborah Antoine

CEO, Women's Sports Foundation

Finish this sentence: “Because of Title IX..."

I have learned that it is never too late to be great!

Before Title IX, just one in 27 girls played high school sports. I was not the one.

I was fortunate to benefit from physical activity as a child, but it was much later in my mid-thirties, that I grew personally, socially, and professionally through sports and competition, reaching my goal in 2016 of a top-10 national USTA singles’ ranking in the Women’s 60s.

I was one of six kids who grew up in a joyful, loving, active, and athletic family. My father was a master of fun and imagination. On a shoestring budget, he taught all six of us to swim, sail, surf, ski, hike, bike, and drive motorcycles.

Our house was the fun place to be. The eight members of my family shared a 950-square-foot home with four tiny bedrooms and one bathroom. Though money was tight, you would never know it because Dad had a way of getting things for free or used, such as a sailboat that might not float, or a battered surfboard, or a zillion other props and sporting items. Mom had an eye for bargains, too, and somehow managed to gain us all admission to various events and ski trips, transported by our used Volkswagen bus.

My dad thought we could do anything, and he would occasionally enter us into local and regional track meets, even though we had no formal training whatsoever. With an abundance of encouragement, he thought we could all run fast and do fine out on the field, and we did. On one day in June of 1968, each of us earned at least one first place medal, with a sports story that followed in the Herald News, titled, “Cross Family Steals Show.” Sixteen at the time, I, “Debby Cross” proudly won the 100 and 220 yard events.

While my four brothers went on to excel on high school sports teams, no one ever thought of me as an “athlete,” nor ever suggested I join a team. While I was a good student, I was the stereotypical cheerleader, rooting for the boys.

I went on to excel academically in college, enrolling “for fun” in golf and gymnastics electives, but as in high school, I never considered the opportunities or the possibilities of my playing team sports.

How have the athletic and academic opportunities afforded to you because of Title IX impacted your life? Can you imagine your life without them?

After marrying in 1975, and then having three daughters, I truly wanted my girls to learn all the lifelong benefits of playing a sport. At a very young age, they played volleyball, tennis, and track and field. They inured all the benefits of traveling on teams, getting their homework done on the back of a bus or the floor of a gym, maintaining good grades, and competing. It made them good people.

My two oldest daughters were playing a lot of tennis, and one day their teaching pro said to me, “you know I bet they get that coordination from you,” to which I responded, “oh no, not me, I’ve never held a racquet.” I was asked to put on some sneakers, hit a few balls, and there and then, I was hooked on a sport. A few years later I was competing on USTA teams, thriving on the camaraderie and the competition. I will never forget the feeling—for the first time in my life—playing a sectional playoff match in Albany, New York, where my parents and my brothers and my children were all there, watching me!

I also enjoyed tennis as part of my work/social life, sometimes teaming up with all-time greats, like Virginia Wade, or more recently, with Deborah Slaner Larkin. (We are known as D2.)

In 1993, I won my first tournament in Newport, Rhode Island, just as my older daughters battled it out for the win in the same tournament.

I have such a competitive spirit in me and I also love to learn. Tennis and the participation in a sport, both individually and on a team, from then on changed my life.

I have learned so much through sport: perseverance, diligence, confidence. And it was that very confidence that changed the trajectory of my career, from teacher, administrator, and volunteer, to positions of leadership in nonprofit organizations.

Tell us about a woman who championed you in pursuing your goals. How did her influence inspire or affect you and your career?

I have been blessed with amazing mentors in my life: among them Paula Kerger, Billie Jean King, and my father.

As senior vice president of WNET, the flagship station of PBS, I reported to Paula Kerger, the COO, from 2003 until 2008. I learned so very much from her: resilience, fairness, how to motivate other to achieve even more than they thought possible. I learned to find my own voice and be confident in expressing my views and opinions. I learned how to listen and how to lead. I learned in the words of Billie Jean King, that “pressure is a privilege,” and I became comfortable with everyone, from homeless men and women to our "luminary trustees."

The other great shero in my life is none other than Billie Jean King! BJK’s book, Pressure is a Privilege, which she published in 2008, meant the world to me.

It was exactly the right book for me at exactly the right time. In 2008, my father, and hero, died; and my daughter Jessica gave birth to twin girls. I heard an inner voice that knew I was ready for a change. Part of that change was a new marriage. The other part was potentially new career. A few years earlier, I was invited by Dr. Bill Baker at WNET to consider a SVP role at the PBS flagship station. That meant going from a budget of $8 million to a budget of $240 million. Moreover, it meant going from a fundraising goal of a few million to the responsibility of raising $40 million per year.

I took the leap, and I was invited to leap again in 2010, to become the president and CEO of New York Junior Tennis and Learning, with hundreds of employees and a $26.5 million capital campaign in the making. The lessons from Billie’s book became my tennis mantra. 

Feeling nervous when I served, I began to repeat to myself every time I tossed the ball: “Pressure is a privilege. I love this game and I deserve to be here.”

And even more important than helping my game, this message gave me the courage to accept the position at NYJTL.

And how wondrous the adventure… who would have known that I would connect with Billie Jean King in the planning of the Billie Jean King Clubhouse at the $26.5 million Cary Leeds Center in the Bronx, and again now, as the CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation, the organization she founded.

In addition to these remarkable women mentors, I must also add the mentorship of my father, who taught me all things about character. It is so important for dads to be a vital part of their daughters’ lives, protecting their rights provided by Title IX, and ensuring that all children have access to opportunity.

How are you continuing to champion the next generation of women and girls in sports, and raise awareness on the importance Title IX?

After more than 40 years in the non-profit sector, I joined the Women’s Sports Foundation as CEO in January 2017. Throughout my career, I have focused on youth education, and community development, most recently, as president and CEO of New York Junior Tennis and Learning, by specifically championing social change through sports.

I am excited now to create an ever-wider community of people who want to expand our universe and join our mission to create more opportunities to get girls engaged in sport. I’m absolutely convinced that sport is responsible for launching my career. It is such an important social and emotional part of my background. That I simply cannot imagine not having sport in my life.

As the mother of three daughters and the grandmother of four, I want for all children the opportunities that my family enjoys.

My purpose now is to drive public awareness and engagement, connecting communities and providing resources to the girls in our communities who need and will benefit the most from our interventions.

If you could send an empowering tweet to every woman and girl across the country, what would you send?

Latch on now to the enduring power of Title IX. It is never too late to be great!

See all our #BecauseofTitleIX stories here! »
Because of Title IX: Vicky Chun »
Because of Title IX: Kiki Baker Barnes »