The U.S. Women’s Soccer team, winners of the 2015 World Cup, are ranked #1 in the world and were recently honored at a White House celebration. These women, like many top female athletes, are an inspiration for girls who participate in sports at any level, from playing kickball in the streets to competing in school tournaments. But for women like me, who grew up without Title IX to guarantee fair access to athletic opportunities, their accomplishments resonate at a much deeper level.
Maybe you don’t know about Title IX. It is a law that was passed in 1972 requiring equity for boys and girls in educational programs that receive federal funding. Before this, girls were not expected or encouraged to play sports and so (no surprise) there was a big discrepancy in funding for girl’s athletics. When I went to high school in the 60s, girls had a perfunctory gym program one or two days a week, plus an intramural and inter-scholastic sports program. Typically, this was not even a drop in the bucket compared to the boy’s program. To a small group of athletic girls, like me, these were very important activities. To the rest of the school, not so much. Girl’s sports ranked right up there with Spanish Club. Being a cheerleader was considered attractive; being a girl jock was not. The boys with varsity letter sweaters strutted around school like royalty while we just went anonymously about our business. I took this all in stride, never thinking much about it being fair. I practiced and played hard — field hockey in the fall, volleyball in the winter, and softball in the spring. I graduated, grew up, and never lost my appetite for sports.
Years later, my high school experience returned like a nightmare. While working at the YMCA, I learned to play racquetball. I had access to the courts every day, advanced quickly, and competed in several mixed leagues. One night at the club, I bumped into an old friend from my high school class. Jim had recently moved to the area, was scheduled to play a game, but his opponent didn’t show up. We chatted for a bit and I offered to fill in, thinking it would be fun. A few minutes into the game, I realized that we were not a match. He had gained weight, was out of shape, much slower, and not as skilled. Normally, in this situation, the better player lets up to make the game closer. It’s sportsman-like. It’s the kind thing to do. I am a kind person…but I did not let up.
As I bounced the ball before each serve, thoughts flashed through my mind that made me unusually aggressive. I remembered that Jim was on our high school football and track teams…and then all the inequities came rushing back. The boys had home and away uniforms. The girls played every sport in our tacky, cotton gym suits. I hit the ball HARD. They had spectators at their games, charged admission, even sold refreshments. We never had anyone come to watch us, not even our parents. I hit the ball HARDER. At basketball and football games, they had scoreboards, announcers, cheerleaders. And we had n-o-t-h-i-n-g. I stayed furious and beat poor Jim something like 15-1, 15-0. OUCH.
When I got back to the locker room and settled down, I felt awful. Jim was a good guy, had been a buddy; he certainly didn’t deserve that. I regret that I never got a chance to apologize or play racquetball with him again. Luckily, that vengeful anger never returned. Now I just feel grateful for all the girls that are growing up with equal resources, opportunities, and respect. Thanks to Title IX, girls now compete in high school (in nice uniforms); they win scholarships to college; some have lucrative professional careers. They can find their role models on the sport pages, on TV, in the national news, and in many fields— soccer, basketball, skiing, tennis, golf. Female athletes present a strong, feminine image, a welcome balance to the glut of fashion models, singers, and actresses. Hooray for Title IX! Better late than never.