Happy birthday, Title IX

The statute, which banned sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, turns 35.

Published June 25, 2007 8:04PM (EDT)

Whenever someone else's birthday comes around I find myself saying, "Damn, when did you get so old?" (though I keep the thought to myself unless I'm feeling particularly uncivilized). I found myself thinking the same thing when I came across two pieces in the San Francisco Chronicle celebrating Title IX's 35th birthday. It's a little hard to believe that as of this month, the statute has been leveling the playing field by banning sex discrimination in federally funded education programs for three and a half decades.

That is, until you look at the actual impact. Title IX has revolutionized high school and collegiate sports (and, as a result, professional sports). Before Title IX, 290,000 girls participated in high school athletics, reports the Chronicle; now, more than 2.9 million girls dig their cleats into AstroTurf, dribble across a muddy soccer field and take part in all other manner of sport. The number of women participating in intercollegiate sports has risen from less than 32,000 to 180,000.

But a gotta-read report from Stanford goes beyond the numbers and talks to professional female athletes who remember the days before Title IX. The Chronicle sums up the unthinkable, from-another-era narratives: "Olympic gold medal basketball coach Tara VanDerveer remembers having no high school team on which to play when she was growing up. She was able to practice in pickup games only because she had the neighborhood's best ball. When tennis star Billie Jean King was ranked fourth in the nation, she had no opportunities for a college athletic scholarship. At Stanford, the women's tennis team practiced with cast-off balls from the men that Coach Dick Gould described as 'not only used, but very used.'"

That those experiences are so unthinkable definitely reveals the statute's age -- not to mention its success. My favorite line from all of the recent Title IX odes comes from John Diaz's editorial in the Chronicle. He alerts his 17-year-old daughter (whom he equally enjoys seeing "dressed up for the prom, looking poised and gorgeous" and "bolting through the rain for a soccer ball, hair matted and socks flecked with mud") that he would be very publicly doting over her in an editorial about Title IX. Her response: "What's Title IX?"

Diaz concludes, "Perhaps that's the ultimate measure of Title IX's progress, 35 years later ... Young women assume they have a right to athletic opportunities." While it's worth seriously considering arguments about how Title IX is being applied -- and whether it's being done so equitably -- Diaz makes an important point: "All of us should be aware of the forces that want to declare victory or redefine 'equality' even before the playing fields are truly level." Those forces, discussed further in the accompanying Chronicle piece, have already led to revision of the statute and made it more difficult to argue against Title IX abuses.

So here's to including today's oblivious but fortunate young athletes in celebration of Title IX's big three-five. With, one hopes, many more birthdays to come ...

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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