Playing the game: Dig For Life founder Cindy Gannon is a longtime advocate for women's athletics

Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Cindy Gannon (Fred Lynch)

Cindy Gannon remembers the days before Title IX called for equal treatment of both sexes in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Before Title IX was enacted in 1972 -- and before the NCAA began sponsoring women's athletics 10 years later -- it was not exactly common for girls to play sports, Gannon recalls. Instead of kicking the soccer ball around at recess, girls sat on the sidelines and watched the boys play. Gannon's brothers got to play in Little League, and she loved watching their games -- but in the back of her mind, she always wondered why the girls weren't out there playing, too.

"I didn't quite understand why I didn't have that same opportunity," says Gannon, senior associate director of athletics and senior woman administrator at Southeast Missouri State University.

Gannon got her chance at sports in high school and college, playing volleyball, basketball and softball, then as a volleyball coach for 16 years at her alma mater, Southeast Missouri State University. Gannon doesn't play sports anymore, but she's dedicated her career to promoting women's athletics and helping women in need obtain mammograms through Dig For Life.

Dig For Life started more than 10 years ago, after Gannon's mom passed away from breast cancer in 2000. Being with her mom through her battle with cancer made Gannon determined to keep other families from going through that experience. She talked to a doctor friend, and together they came up with the idea of pledges per dig in volleyball, and Dig For Life was born. They raised something like $1,200 that year, says Gannon, and she was happy with that -- but then her friend put her in touch with administrators at Saint Francis Medical Center. Gannon shared her ideas, and she was shocked when they came back to her with an entire Dig For Life campaign with logos, commercials, T-shirts and a group of physicians who pledged to keep mammograms at only $100 each.

"It was absolutely amazing to me," says Gannon. Dig For Life has since been encompassed by Pink Up Cape and Pink Up Jackson, athletic events, restaurant fundraisers, breast cancer luncheons and many more community groups wanting to help provide mammograms. It's become a survival link for women in need, as well as inspiration to breast cancer survivors, and that's "so cool," says Gannon. Dig For Life has provided more than 2,000 mammograms and raised more than $200,000, says Gannon -- and the mammograms are still only $100.

Gannon's other major project has been the Walk for Women's Athletics, now in its sixth year at Southeast. Gannon says she works every day with promising student athletes, and the goal of this event is to make the presence of women's athletics better known in the community and celebrate their achievements. The walk, set for April 13, provides scholarship dollars for both male and female student athletes.

"All of our athletes are important, but I think it's OK to take a day to celebrate our female athletes here and all the great things they do on campus," says Gannon. "There are so many young girls playing basketball, softball, volleyball and soccer -- what an opportunity to take women on campus who represent sports at the highest level possible, and let them be role models for those girls."

Student athletes also serve as inspiration and motivation to Gannon herself. She loves seeing them transform from wide-eyed freshmen into young adults ready to take on the challenges of the world. She hopes each graduate had a good athletic and academic experience, made lifelong friends and felt like people cared about them while they were at Southeast. Gannon could shuffle papers around all day, she says, but then she wouldn't be doing the job she came for: To impact people's lives.

"What I try to emphasize is that they give back to the community, whatever that involves," says Gannon. "Take that passion they have on the court and put it toward whatever they do. Take that passion into the next phase in life."

Gannon's job also involves serving as a deputy with the Title IX coordinator in the Office of Equity and Diversity Issues, ensuring that all students are treated fairly and equally. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX, but Gannon says it's a constant evolution that depends on society and the people in it. But we're in a sports-crazed society, she says, and there are definitely better things coming for women's athletics. Just the other day, says Gannon, she was looking for the Cardinals game on TV and found three different stations broadcasting women's sporting events -- and that's definitely something that didn't happen 40 years ago.

"We treat people fairly because there are no second-class citizens," says Gannon. "Women don't sit on the sidelines anymore. We're out there playing, and it's fantastic. It took commitment from a lot of people for us to be able to do that."


Did you know ...

Southeast Missouri State University hosted the first-ever NCAA women's sporting event in 1981 -- it was a cross-country championship.