I’m going to throw a few names at you.
Lauren Jackson. Tamika Catchings. Lisa Leslie. Maya Moore. Tina Thompson. Sheryl Swoopes. You’ve heard of these women. Maybe you’ve watched them light it up in the WNBA or at the Olympics. The point is, you know of them.
But you probably wouldn’t, if not for a single sentence.
“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.”
That’s all Title IX, a federal civil rights law, is, give or take some regulations. Without that sentence, the U.S. has eight fewer gold medals. Without it, Dawn Staley and the University of South Carolina don’t take the basketball world by storm. Without it, Lauren, Tamika, Lisa, Maya, Tina, Sheryl, Candace, Elena and so, so many others, myself included, aren’t where we are today.
I was your typical tomboy growing up. My older brother, Gerard, was a star in track and field, and I wanted to be just like him. I tried to follow him everywhere he went, play every sport he played. I started out running track, then took up soccer, then basketball at the age of nine. As it turned out, I was pretty darn good at basketball. I started playing on the AAU circuit, traveling all over the country and balling out everywhere I went. No one ever told me, “No, you can’t play because you’re a girl.” Forty-five years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case.
Title IX was passed in 1972. It’s younger than my dad. He grew up in the Jim Crow South, before Title IX. When he was in high school in Texas, Tulane offered him a football scholarship. Even though Tulane had been integrated a few years before, my dad received a lot of death threats from white Tulane fans who didn’t want to see him play there. He went to Lamar, in Beaumont, Texas, instead.
My dad liked to talk to me about those times as I was growing up and getting really serious about sports. He’d tell me how women could only play half-court basketball, and couldn’t even continuously dribble until 1966. He wasn’t trying to prove how much harder it was back then, he just wanted to make sure I appreciated the opportunities I had. And I did. I truly did. But I don’t think I fully realized just how lucky I was until I met Debbie Ryan, my coach at the University of Virginia.
You have to understand, Coach Ryan is like royalty at UVA, and not just because she coached there for more than 30 years and won more than 700 games. Her legacy goes well beyond that.
“You guys are blessed,” she used to tell us. “The fancy locker room, the chartered planes … we didn’t have that when I was playing. We used to share a locker room with the softball team. We used to have to ride a bus when the men’s team would fly. We used to wash our own jerseys.”
Like my dad, she wasn’t trying to shame us. She wanted us to know that we were playing for something bigger than ourselves. We’re playing for those who came before us, who sacrificed so that we could play this game on equal footing. We’re playing for those who will come after us, so they can enjoy the same, or maybe even better, opportunities than we currently have. I know that’s why I bring it every single game. I know that’s why Maya and Elena and Sue Bird and Nneka Ogwumike and every other WNBA player does, too.
I know there are those who think that Title IX isn’t important. Or that it hasn’t had that much of an impact. Well, for those people, here are a few numbers to consider. Since 1972, participation in women’s sports in high schools has increased 900%. That’s not a typo. Before Title IX, there were fewer than 30,000 NCAA female athletes. In 2012, that number was nearly 200,000. Just to top it off, in 2012, the United States sent more female than male athletes to the Olympics.
And I would bet there are those who are saying that the time to talk about Title IX was last month. But is that really true?
We can and must celebrate the success gained by that simple sentence over the last 45 years. Not just on the anniversary of Title IX’s passing, but every day. Because of that legislation, women have more access to opportunities in the classroom and in sports than ever before. Without Title IX, there probably wouldn’t be enough basketball talent in our high schools, colleges or universities to fill the rosters in a professional women’s league. And probably without the law, we probably would not be able to field a competitive Team USA to properly represent the country that gave the opportunity in the first place!
But I also know we still have a long way to go until we have true equity between men and women. Some schools still fail to properly implement and enforce Title IX. But that’s why we keep fighting and playing. Even if Title IX is one day completely enforced at every academic institution in the country, I still don’t think our fight would be over. There’s still the pros.
Have you ever wondered what sports would look like if Title IX or simple principles of fairness applied at the professional level?
I’m not necessarily arguing that leagues for women and men who play professional basketball or soccer or hockey or football should be precisely equal. Title IX, after all is built on principles of equity.
So, if those same principles applied to my league, for example, players in the WNBA would:
- Be given the same quality of equipment and supplies as their NBA counterparts
- Have similar locker rooms, practice gyms and competitive facilities
- Have access to the same medical, rehab and training services
- Enjoy the same travel arrangements, and per diems
Those are all Title IX considerations, which means that is what high school and college administrators are supposed to monitor for young athletes in their school programs. There is more to it, for sure. But this is a starting point for the larger conversation. Honestly, those kinds of improvements in travel, facilities, rehab services, etc, would be a significant step for professional athletes in my sport—a huge step for all those professional athletes who happen to be women. We would feel valued. And notice, I haven’t even mentioned salaries…yet.
Just two years ago, the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) reported that “college and professional sports continue to provide unequal funding for women.” And the WSF went on to suggest that “paying men more for the same sport gives women in the sport less incentive to push themselves and discourages future female participants in the sport.” Those are interesting findings. I understand the point the WSF is making; however, I am not sure that I fully agree.
If you think any one of us has been less inclined to bring it every night, well, I’ll let you take that up with Tina or Britney or Alana or Skylar or Seimone or Sylvia or… anyone you dare to ask! But the overall point about the effects of inequities on long-term motivation is not lost on any of us.
In an ideal world there would be a Title IX for the pros. I get that because of market factors that’s just not possible right now. But maybe through the lessons learned from Title IX and with the vision and passion of a generation who came of age under its provisions, we can change the culture. Think about the world that could create. One in which women are valued for their athletic pursuits, not compared to their male counterparts, and certainly not sexualized. One where the old stereotypes about female athletes don’t exist, where there aren’t any more barriers to access. Where the playing field is truly, completely, finally level.
I dropped a lot of names in this article. Those athletes deserve to be at the top of mind in your Title IX celebrations and discussions. Become a name dropper yourself. Attend a competition featuring athletes who happen to be women. There is at least one professional league playing this weekend.