Sporting chance
40 years ago, Title IX plunged women in to the race. Are they winning?

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“Ay batter. Ay batter. Ay batter, batter, batter, swing!” The 10-year- old shouted from a seat on the third-base line at the minor league ballgame.

The Pedro Martinez replica glove Alexis Cohen punched in anticipation of catching a fly ball gave her away – she’s a pitcher.

Matter of fact,” dad Dan Cohen, said, “Lexi is probably the best in the league.”

Forty years ago, before Title IX, his statement would not have been matter of fact. There weren’t many options for a 10-year-old girl to play ball.

Title IX, a portion of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, ensures equal access in federally funded education programs. The measure states, “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 education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Title IX is just 37 words, but in 40 years the law has forged colossal change – for kids like Alexis Cohen and parents like Dan Cohen, for teams, schools, communities, states, the nation, the world.

“When reflecting on great moments of 20th century civil rights history, certainly 1972 and the enactment of Title IX was a defining point,” said NCAA president Mark Emmert.

He likened Title IX to the Magna Carta for women, adding, “It provides for women what had previously been denied – opportunity. Because of Title IX, my daughter has more opportunities than my wife had available. And my granddaughter, more than my daughter.”

Billie Jean King, the tennis legend and pioneering equality activist, said succinctly, “Those 37 words mean everything.”

On June 20, King joined athletes, coaches, policymakers, policy-enforcers and politicians for a White House Council on Women and Girls celebration of Title IX at 40. The kind of superlatives that sportscasters use to describe an unparalleled season – a Triple Crown win or a Grand Slam victory – were applied to federal legislation. Monumental. Pivotal. Epic. Legendary. Heroic. Breakthrough.

Title IX, overseen by the Education and Justice departments, applies to athletics and academics and protects students from elementary school through college. But there’s no question that much of the focus has been on athletic opportunities for females.

“When Title IX came around, it just opened so many doors for people,” said Pat Summitt, former head basketball coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols and recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Before Title IX

When Summitt was growing up, sports opportunities for girls and women were limited – they were more on the sandlot than in the stadium. Summitt’s family had to move to a new city when she was in high school because her hometown school lacked a girl’s basketball team.

King said when she attended college in California in the 1960s, sports scholarships for women were scarce. Nearby, Stan Smith was going to school on a full scholarship. So was Arthur Ashe. King, already considered one of the best in her sport, had no scholarship and was working two full-time jobs to get by.

“But I thought I was living large,” she said.

Glance at Wikipedia’s sports highlights for 1971 or 1972. King’s name appears in both – in 1972, she won the French and U.S. opens and Wimbledon. But overall, the lists contain more mentions of horses in sport than women in sport.

In 1971, there were 294,016 girls in high school sports, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, the nonprofit that King founded.

In higher education, there were 31,852 women playing on college teams, and women’s sports programs received about 2 percent of overall athletic budgets.

Hitting a homer

Today, there are 3.06 million girls playing high school sports and 166,800 women playing on college teams. Female participation in high school sports has increased 1,000 percent since 1972.

“I’ll never forget when Title IX passed, because it’s so important to all of us,” King said.

Title IX became law on June 23, 1972, with Richard Nixon’s signature on the Education Amendments Act of 1972.

In the U.S. House, Edith Green and Patsy Mink had pushed for the legislation, which developed out of hearings that focused not on athletics but on hiring and firing practices in higher education, on career opportunities and degrees. Back then, women earned just 9 percent of all medical degrees and 7 percent of law degrees.

In the Senate, the measure’s sponsor was ERA champion Birch Bayh of Indiana, who said from the floor, “While the impact of this amendment would be far-reaching, it is not a panacea. It is, however, an important first step in the effort to provide for the women of America something that is rightfully theirs – an equal chance to attend the schools of their choice, to develop the skills they want, and to apply those skills with the knowledge that they will have a fair chance to secure the jobs of their choice with equal pay for equal work.”

Earlier in June, Bayh observed the Title IX anniversary at the White House and at a WNBA game in Indianapolis, when the Indiana Fever trounced the Connecticut Sun.

“We tend to think of Title IX in terms of numbers,” Bayh said. “To me, this whole business of Title IX is much more than numbers. It’s about individual citizens, individual young women – and not so young women and a few liberal men – who have been willing to stand up and be counted, willing to make a difference.”

“The law is only 37 words ... but it has a big punch,” Bayh said.

In the ring

Title IX’s results are impressive, if mixed.

Two in five girls play high school sports today; in 1972 the ratio was one in 27.

A 2008 study showed women’s collegiate sports having grown to 9,101 teams – 8.65 teams per school.

The number of girls playing what were long considered boys’ sports has soared. In 1973-74, there were an estimated 96 girls playing ice hockey. In 2009-10, that number was more than 8,000.

Women receive about $617 million a year in scholarships compared with $100,000 in 1972.

Women’s soccer was born after Title IX, along with the sport’s biggest names. So was the WNBA. And women’s participation and success at the Olympic level has rocketed.

Post-Title IX research shows that females who’ve played team sports have higher levels of self-esteem, and girls who play in high school are less likely to use drugs or get pregnant and more likely to get better grades, graduate from high school and go on to college.

Laurel J. Richie, the president of the WNBA and former vice president of the Girl Scouts of America, was involved in two sports in the days before Title IX – synchronized swimming and cheerleading.

“That is a testament to the world before Title IX,” she said. “That’s what girls did.”

Thinking about the athletic pursuits of her nieces, Richie said young girls see no boundaries – they play what they want to play.

Shoni Schimmel, a fearless point guard for the University of Louisville, was born 20 years after passage of Title IX. Unlike Summitt, she didn’t have to move around to find a place to play – instead she had to choose the best of multiple opportunities offered.

The law’s legacy, said Schimmel, is that girls like her are growing up “knowing you can do it, you can go out there and achieve your dreams.”

Going the distance

Still, work remains, said Tom Perez, an assistant attorney general for civil rights with the U.S. Justice Department. The legacy issue – gender inequity – remains a challenge, and there also are “emerging issues” to confront.

“We have a lot of cases that involve harassment, including, now, same-sex harassment,” Perez said.

Earlier this year, Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District settled a Title IX complaint over anti-LGBT bullying and harassment that represented a renewed effort by the Obama administration to combat sex-based harassment.

“The school system was not responding adequately,” Perez said of the case.

More recently, the Education Department’s civil rights office ordered a Texas school to revise its Title IX policies after it punished a girl who reported a campus rape by placing her in a disciplinary program with her attacker.

“We can use Title IX to respond,” Perez said, noting that the law is intended to protect students’ right to an education without harassment or assault.

The White House also recently announced efforts to assess gaps in school enrollment and graduation rates and new guidelines to help schools comply with Title IX rules for science, technology, math and engineering.

“This is an extraordinary milestone to celebrate, but it can’t just be about celebration,” Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council said. “It must be about looking ahead.”

And the “legacy issues,” as Perez characterized them, remain.

In 1972-73, 12 times more boys than girls played high school sports. In 2010, with boys’ participation at a record level, they still outnumbered girls, although by only 29 percent.

A 2005-06 study found women make up 55 percent of the student population at NCAA schools but less than 45 percent of the athlete population.

And research suggests a needed focus at elementary schools, because if a girl doesn’t participate in sports by age 10 there’s only a 10 percent chance she’ll be involved in athletics at age 25.

So the Education Department and the courts continue to field student, parent and educator complaints under Title IX.

Earlier this year, the department’s Chicago office began investigating a complaint against five Wisconsin school districts – Kettle Moraine, Oconomowoc, Mukwonago, Waukesha and Elmbrook – for alleged noncompliance with Title IX. The complaint claimed significant disparities in athletic opportunities and a failure to expand opportunities for girls.

Letters from the Education Department, obtained in a freedom of information request by Lake County Publications, said the districts allegedly failed “Title IX’s three-part participation test.”

In 2006 and 2009, the Education Department also investigated Title IX complaints against the Arrowhead Union High School District.

While the text of Title IX is straightforward, the application, enforcement, legal disputes, claims and counter- claims get complicated.

“The statuary language has stayed the same, but the specifics as to what it requires, that’s largely been the product of rule-making by the Office of Civil Rights and common law,” explained Matt Mitten, director of the National Sports Institute at Marquette University Law School. Marquette offers the nation’s most comprehensive sports law program and the institute is the only one of its kind.

Traditionally, the complaints related to Title IX are against school districts for failure to comply.

But Title IX also has challengers. Much of their criticism is that Title IX harms boys and men by forcing schools to eliminate opportunities for them and shift resources            to girls. And much of their focus has been on the “three-prong test,” especially the first prong, which critics say establishes gender quotas that lead to the dismantling of programs for males.

Groups such as the Women’s Sports Foundation, however, say overall opportunities for males continue to grow and that schools that eliminate opportunities for males to comply are not acting in the spirit of the law.

Offering a law professor’s perspective, Mitten said, “A school can chose to reduce opportunities for boys to make things more proportionate and that’s something schools have done. ...That is legal under existing law. But it’s not preferred.”

In the best of worlds, schools create rather than reduce opportunities, and everybody gets a sporting chance, according to Title IX advocates.

“I think Title IX has changed the face of high school and college sports,” Mitten said. “There are many more athletic opportunities for females, which is very, very good. After all, why do schools offer athletics? Education.

“Sports promote health and teach life skills, the value of team work, perseverance, common objectives, how to be humble in victory, how to handle the disappointment which comes from defeat. That’s what Title IX was designed to do. It’s an important part of the education process.”

Back at the minor league baseball game, Alexis Cohen hoped to avoid a lesson in defeat and, in between “ay batter, batter” got an education from her dad on curve balls.