From Title IX to a hockey victory in women’s sports

Good for the U.S. women’s hockey team. But it wasn’t that long ago that such competition by women would have been impossible.

When the U.S. women’s national hockey team won its standoff with USA Hockey, coming to a deal in their quest for more equity in pay and more support for the women’s national program, I couldn’t help but remember that it wasn’t that long ago when this type of activity would have been unheard of.

Professional sports obviously are separate from what happens in the nation’s schools. Yet the gradual—and still ultimately unrealized—movement toward equity in sports wouldn’t have been possible without Title IX.

Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a short and simple federal law: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Which would apply to any public school at any level, and most private ones, too.

It was a long time coming, and the goal of equity in women’s sports (or anywhere!) is still elusive. But don’t forget that tennis champion Billie Jean King, who did so much for women’s sports when she beat Bobby Riggs in 1973, also was instrumental in fighting for equal prize money. That initial women’s tennis tour was sponsored by tobacco giant Philip Morris, and the Virginia Slims Tour pushed a cigarette marketed toward women with the catchphrase, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Just like women athletes.

Even though the law passed in 1972, it took almost a decade for Title IX to survive challenges from lawmakers wanting to exempt “revenue-producing” men’s sports from the law. It also had to survive lawmakers’ attempts to exempt intercollegiate sports from the law altogether. It took three years to write and finalize the law’s regulations and provisions. And they are still being challenged.

The National College Athletic Association challenged Title IX’s legality—and lost. There has been court case after court case challenging the law on issues such as scholarships, funds allocated to men’s and women’s sports, and discrimination. The U.S. Department of Education, through the Office of Civil Rights, is still issuing further clarifications about the law, clarifications that have both strengthened it and weakened it over the years. A timeline from the Women’s Sports Foundation provides a history of Title IX and its 45-year struggle. (The Women’s Sports Foundation, by the way, was founded in 1974 by Billie Jean King to “create leaders by ensuring girls access to sports.”)

Yet when you look at school sports programs today, there’s no question of how much things have changed. Girls’ sports still aren’t equal, but participation has become so commonplace that it’s hard to imagine how school existed without sports teams for girls.

Today, an equal number of elementary-age girls as boys sign up for T-ball and soccer. Those women on the U.S. women’s hockey team have played sports since they were young. (Of course, you win some, you lose some. While there was good news about the U.S. women’s team, the University of North Dakota cut women’s hockey.)

It wasn’t always that way.

If you graduated high school after the 1970s, you might not remember a time when many teenage girls didn’t have access to high school sports.

Back then, I remember that my athletically inclined friends could play a few intramural sports but couldn’t compete against other schools. They would gain the sometimes derogatory reputation of being “jocks.” Some schools did have competition for women’s teams in a few sports such as gymnastics, but hardly all. But girls could always try out for cheerleading or for the pom-pon squad, right? Or join the school dance troupe?

For younger kids, Little League was for boys. So was flag football. Girls were steered more toward dance or tennis lessons, both activities that cost money and thus were unavailable to those from poorer communities. As for college sports, well, there were football and basketball and other, smaller sports—for men. College sports for women were on a separate track. Athletic scholarships were certainly not for female students.

Title IX changed all that. Before Title IX, only one in 27 girls played sports, says the Women’s Sports Foundation. Today, that number is two in five.

Without Title IX, there wouldn’t be enough women’s basketball talent coming up through the school system to populate professional women’s sports like the WNBA. Who won the most medals for the U.S. at the 2016 Olympics in Rio? Women. The U.S. women took home 61 medals to the men’s 55. But that was a long time coming, according to a story from NPR:

At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, American women won 23 medals compared with 71 for the U.S. men. The women didn’t win a single medal in gymnastics and had no golds in track and field.

But that same year, the U.S. Congress passed Title IX, barring sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding. This has helped revolutionize women’s sports at both the high school and college levels.

American women are now dominant in many sports, including gymnastics, swimming, basketball, rowing, water polo and soccer. Americans took gold in all of those sports, except soccer, where they were upset by Sweden.

After the 1975 regulations were finalized, elementary schools had one year to comply with the equality in athletics requirements of Title IX. High schools had until July 1978, and colleges had until the 1978-79 school year. Although some schools and school systems continued to fight the law, many embraced the new opportunities to break new ground and surge ahead, like the time Lisa Leslie became the first woman to slam dunk in WNBA history.

I vividly remember the first Illinois high school basketball championship tournament for girls being played at Illinois State University in 1977. I wrote about it for a central Illinois newspaper at my first job out of college. (This was a feature story; the sports section sent its own reporter to give it full coverage.) High school state championship tournaments are always exciting for sports fans and families, but the crowd watching the first high school girls’ basketball team win a state championship went certifiably nuts. To the proud parents and classmates, it didn’t matter that the guys on the basketball court were girls.

The cheerleaders who one week earlier were cheering for the boys’ teams were back, this time cheering for the girls’ teams. This time around, one cheerleader told me, it meant a lot more, because so many of the girls on the team were good friends.

The first national collegiate championship for women was held in 1941, in golf. Some women’s sports started growing at the college level in the 1950s and 1960s, with schools competing against other nearby schools. Women’s sports developed their own national championship series and their own organization, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, as participation in various sports grew, but those efforts were still dwarfed by men’s competition. The AIAW finally disbanded in 1982 after all women’s sports came under the auspices of the NCAA. Women athletes started receiving college athletic scholarships in 1974.

Full equality in women’s sports is still falling short, at the school and professional levels, in both opportunities and payment for professionals. Even in the area of coaching: The New York Times reports that in 1972, women were head coaches in 90 percent of women’s college teams. Today, that figure is 40 percent.

According to the Women’s Sports Federation:

  • Girls have 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play high school sports than boys have.
  • Male athletes still receive 55 percent of NCAA college athletic scholarship money (although the gap has narrowed).
  • Even though female students make up 57 percent of college student populations, female athletes receive only 43 percent of participation opportunities at NCAA schools.
  • For winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the U.S. Women’s National Team got $2 million. Germany’s men’s team took home $35 million for winning the 2014 World Cup. The U.S. men’s team finished in 11th place and collected $9 million.
  • Women’s sports account for less than two percent of network news and ESPN’s SportsCenter.
  • Even the ESPN Ticker gives women short shrift—96.4 percent of the information scrolling along the bottom of the screen is dedicated to only men’s sports.

We may have come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go. So just remember:

Originally posted on Daily Kos on April 2, 2017.

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