Donna Lopiano is the former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation and a champion of Title IX, the 1972 U.S. law that bars sex-based discrimination in education, including sports programs. An all-around athlete, she participated in 26 national championships in four sports and was a nine-time All-American at four different positions in softball. Before joining a Zócalo/ASU Foundation streamed event titled “Can We Build a Better Summer Olympics,” she called into the virtual green room to talk about Babe Didrikson’s legacy, the power of sleep, and drinking buffalo milk on the softball diamond.
What's your favorite book?
Probably a very old one called Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga. It’s all about the philosophy of sport and play, and it’s stuck with me all my life. It's probably my favorite book. Otherwise, I just read get-away fictions. But my favorite book in terms of values, and the way I see the world, is a really old one.
What about it changed the way you thought about sport?
Well, I was always an athlete, but the meaning of sport was something intellectually I never explored until probably I went to college. So you realized you loved playing, you loved this experience of mastery of self, and that book was all about why human beings play. The thing that stuck with me all my life was that the two ingredients are inseparable: mastery and fun. If you cannot master something, it's probably not fun. It's like trying to get a kid to play baseball. If you strike out five times in a row, it's no fun.
When are you at your most creative?
It's really a funny answer. Earlier in life I always used to get up at three or four o'clock, and I valued that time because I had to run a $10 million nonprofit. And I never got time to think.
Now I go to sleep at night, and if I’m thinking about a problem, I am amazed when I wake up in the morning that I often have a solution. I'm beginning to think that I missed all this sleep time when I could've been really creative.
What's your go-to comfort food?
I don't have a sweet tooth. I'm Italian. I would probably say my favorite thing is mozzarella cheese, fresh basil, and fresh tomatoes. I could eat that any time of day or night. To me, that's comfort food.
What's the best gift you've ever gotten?
Probably the gift I got on the occasion of my first Holy Communion, which was a baseball glove. I grew up a tomboy. I grew up in the street with 15 boys and one other girl, and I played sports. I thought I was a boy, I'm sure. And normally your first Holy Communion as a Catholic is pretty boring. They give you a little gold cross. Your family might give you a Bible or something religiously oriented. But my uncle, who knew how much I loved baseball, gave me a baseball glove. And I thought that was the best gift in the entire world.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Always give to others; it'll always come back to you. Work hard, try to do good, and always say “yes.” Things will work out. I've found that all my life. I've never said no to anybody who's asked me to do anything.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
Strange? I've never had a job that I would call strange. The most adventurous job was athletic director for women's athletics at the University of Texas at Austin for about 18 years. And then I became the CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation. And then I hung my own shingle in terms of being a consultant. You have to be of a certain age to be able to do that. And one of my first clients was in the country of Qatar. And my experience with the Middle East was probably the greatest adventure of my professional life—understanding another culture, and then just living there. It was just very different and valuable to know that there's this other thing that you don't understand as Westerner. Also: a dollar-a-gallon gas.
I imagine you’ve gotten an international education thanks to your career.
I was fortunate enough by the time I was 16, I had traveled around the world with my softball team. We played softball in Manila against American soldiers who lost their shirts betting against the women, and we drank buffalo milk instead of Gatorade on the diamond there. Those kinds of experiences are worth a million bucks.
What's the most memorable softball game that you played?
I remember all the ones that I've lost as a pitcher. The pitch you threw that somebody got a hit and your team lost the game. I think that's probably true of learners. If you could ever go through life saying I never made the same mistake twice, you'd probably be pretty good at what you do. So, I can't remember a home run. I can't remember a perfect game, but I can remember one of those pitches that lost a game.
What sports figure, living or dead, would you most like to meet?
Probably Babe Didrikson. She was a multiple sport athlete, but made her name in professional golf, playing against men. Babe was a Billie Jean King kind of character—bigger than life—at the time. And probably well-known because of going head-to-head [with the men] when women just didn't do that. So that's what made her so different…. It's not exactly right, but it's like no one pays attention unless you measure up against a guy and find out you're better.
What's the last thing that inspired you?
Well, it's always the most recent conversation about what's happening in the world in terms of crisis. Infectious diseases, conversations concerning white privilege. That's what makes being a human being so interesting, learning something new every day.