Back in the Fight

A Q&A with Vivian Fuller, AD at Maryland-Eastern Shore.

By Staff

Athletic Management, 12.6, Oct/Nov 2000,

Vivian Fuller has battled long and hard for Title IX. As an athletic director at three NCAA Division I institutions, she has helped to establish new territory for women administrators and has earned the respect of colleagues nationwide. But, these advances have not been without hard-fought battles—and Fuller has the scars to prove it.
In 1998, as she was beginning her second year as Athletic Director at Tennessee State University, she was abruptly fired. Fuller filed a lawsuit against the school, alleging that her dismissal was due to her attempts to improve funding for women’s sports at the school. The case was recently settled, and, as a consequence, Fuller was advised by counsel not to comment on the specifics of the case in this talk with Athletic Management, her first interview since leaving Tennessee State.
“We just recently settled the lawsuit with Tennessee State and other defendants under which no parties admitted any liability,” says Fuller. “I would like to add that I have no ill feelings against TSU and wish them the best in their future.”
Formerly the Athletic Director at Northeastern Illinois University, Fuller was hired by Tennessee State in 1997, making her one of only a handful of women heading Division I programs with football. The hire also made her the first African-American woman to have this distinction. “One of my personal goals was to be an athletic director where we had football,” says Fuller. “Women are always being told that it’s something we can’t do, that we don’t know enough about football.”
Fuller arrived at the school with four games left in the season and watched the Tigers finish 4-7 for the year. “The next year, we worked on building that program,” says Fuller. “We were 9-3 and won the OVC (Ohio Valley Conference) championship, which was a great accomplishment for those coaches and those student-athletes. That had not been done there in 12 years.”
Fuller was fired just after the football season ended. Afterwards, she took some time off to reevaluate her career options. Then, in June, 2000, she accepted the job as Athletic Director at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, a Division I institution that does not have football.
“I feel like this is the place where I’m supposed to be,” Fuller says. “University of Maryland-Eastern Shore has given me a second chance.”
In the following question-and-answer series, Fuller discusses the period she spent evaluating herself, her continuing dedication to Title IX, and how she has put her career back together.

AM: After what happened at Tennessee State, did you ever consider leaving athletics? Fuller: One of the things that I decided was that I had to face my demons. I had to decide if it was me—if I just wasn’t cut out for this business. And one of the things I kept coming back to is that I loved what I was doing. If I was going to let one incident deter me, I wasn’t going to be happy. I decided to take a look at me and see if I was the problem. If I was the problem, then I would have admitted that I needed to change professions.
I took some time off to see exactly what I wanted to do. I had several job offers, and I just said, “I need to exhale. I have been on this perpetual treadmill for about 18 years.” That treadmill was athletics. I had not taken a vacation. I had not missed days from work unless it was for professional meetings or something involved in athletics such as attending a game. And I never realized that until I fell off my horse.
My spirit is a fighting spirit, my spirit is a spirit of renewing. And that was the approach I took. I don’t talk about it that often, simply because it’s a chapter that I want to close.

Do you have any advice for other athletic directors who face the same hurdles you tried to overcome at Tennessee State?
If I were giving someone some advice about being a change agent when you go into an institution, the first thing I would suggest is, “Make sure you do your background work.” Find the background information and understand the history and culture of the institution. The second piece of advice is, “Have a strong support system.” And the third thing I would say is, “When you make decisions, do you want to stand alone or do you want to stand with a group?”

How would you assess Title IX right now on a national scope?
I think the first thing we have to do as administrators is examine how the dollars are being spent. And we have to take accountability for that. The second thing we have to do as administrators is to make sure that we are providing opportunities to the underrepresented. Have we done that in the last 10 years? In some cases, yes; in some cases, no.
If we had to do a report card, I would say that we haven’t gone as far as we should have. What we have to do now is to get the grades up on a report card for Title IX. We have to find women, we have to make sure that their needs and interests are being met. We have to look at the history of our collegiate programs and see what we’re doing to advance women’s programs. And in some cases, we haven’t done that.
We’ve also got to change the culture. It’s harder to change the culture than the institution.

What do you think that you might do to change that culture? Here at University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, we’re going to be a positive example for the rest of the student body. We’re going to change the culture at the institution by starting with the athletic program. We’re going to be a positive role model.
We’re also going to have a broad-based recruitment program where we bring all types of athletes in here who can be academically successful and can graduate from college, but also have a quality experience as it relates to competition. I have just finished writing a letter about competition and student-athlete welfare, and that’s going to be a big issue here.
We’re also going to be out in the community. My method has always been to be outgoing and do outreach and to help people. And that’s still my goal.

What do you think we can do in terms of getting more girls to participate in sports?
I think one of the things we have to do is find role models for women and girls in these sports. The other thing we have to do—and we have to start early, maybe by educating parents—is we have to teach little girls and women that it’s okay to play sports no matter how you look. Sports don’t have to have an image. One of the problems that I see in sports marketing and advertising is that we advertise to the perfection of the sport. What is the ultimate that a person who plays basketball looks like? We use basketball players as models.
When little girls look at that, the first inclination is, “I have to look like that in order to play the sport.” Which is not true. We do not show women when they first started and then how they worked themselves up into shape. Sometimes, I think it’s a mixed message that we send in sports.

What do you think your story is ultimately about?
I hope that this story is about a woman who was dynamic and quite accomplished, who all of a sudden fell off her horse and then rebounded. Now she has an opportunity to do all those things that she has ever wanted to do in athletics and to prove to women that they can achieve their goals no matter what.
But right now, I think the thing that’s important for me, as part of the growing process, is to get up there and show women that you can do it. It helps me to think of myself as a role model and an example of courage, even if it sounds as if I’m patting myself on the back.
I’m very positive about the situation. I can live with it. I’ve learned from it. I’ve grown from it. And I’m a better person. Although, two years ago, I never thought you would hear me say that.

Additional highlights of Athletic Management’s interview with Vivian Fuller can be accessed at our home page, .