Title IX: Women Athletes Speak Out

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“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 of the Education Amendments of 1972

It’s eye opening to see the wide cross-section of women drawn to attend the recent Title IX Today, Title IX Tomorrow conference at Stanford University, which was reflecting on thirty five years of Title IX history and where women’s athletics are headed.

The day-long event drew law and ethics professors, kinesiology experts, gender equity consultants, representatives from lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender student groups, and athletic directors from major California universities. It brought feminist tennis star, Billie Jean King, wheelchair athletes, young non-profit coordinators connecting inner city youth, college student coaches, and me—an uncoordinated weekend cyclist and writer. With women and men running and biking around the campus, and the university bookstore—with the largest women’s studies section I have ever seen—Stanford was the perfect backdrop for the conference. 

Title IX was one of several amendments to the Higher Education Act; it created federal legislation to prevent gender discrimination in education programs. In only thirty-seven words, it restructured athletic participation options at American schools and created opportunities for 2.8 million high school women to play today. More than 166,000 women play on 8,700 women’s teams nationwide, and last year saw the highest number of women who have ever participated in intercollegiate sports. American colleges and universities now offer an average of 8.5 women’s sports compared to the 2.5 average offered in the early 1970s.

As an ‘80s baby, my weekend mornings alternated between soccer, tennis, dance, and cross-country track. A lack of hand-eye coordination was less than helpful, and I still shudder when I think of the only time I hit a double in a softball game, only to jump over first base and be sent home. But my extremely active mom stressed that when she was in high school, tennis and cheerleading were the only sports options for girls. I was no superstar, but the teams I was a part of taught me how to manage my time, learn from defeat, and set goals. Plus, I met my best friend playing third doubles.

My main recollection of Billie Jean King’s famous, “Battle of the Sexes” match years ago was disgust at the dancing girls who escorted King’s opponent: self-proclaimed male chauvinist Billy Riggs. In 1973, ninety million people worldwide watched the match (which she won, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3).

“I knew that if I was going to play against him, it was vital that I win to change the hearts and minds of people,” King told an audience primarily made up of women in their sixties and young athletes with ponytails. “It’s very clear that that match was about social change.” She took her role so seriously that she still occasionally wakes up at night wondering whether she’d actually played the match yet.

The sixty three-year-old creator of the Women’s Sports Foundation started a discussion with young Oakland tennis players on international microfinance projects and racial politics. Both her social consciousness, and ability to laugh at herself, make King engaging. She is as knowledgeable about the political climate of the 1970s as she is about today’s. King reflected on how she had worn an Afro for part of the 1970s to express solidarity with African-Americans, and express her belief that “black is beautiful.” She spoke at length about the current presidential administration’s attempts to “correct” Title IX by issuing surveys to gage women’s interest in sports, with non-response to the e-mails surveys counted as lack of interest in athletics, something that’s frustratingly irrational.

Wearing a bright red blazer, pearls, and black Nike tennis shoes, King recalled asking neighbors in Long Beach for odd jobs so that she could earn $8.29 to buy her first racquet. She said she’ll never stop wearing glasses and laughed about wearing a rhinestone pair held together with a safety pin in her first major tennis tournament.

King recalled how friends Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors received full scholarships to play tennis at ULCA—where she worked two jobs to put herself through college—while ranked one of the top players in the US. When asked how much she received to play at the college level, King flung her arms out and sang, “Zippity-do-da!” When she started the first professional women’s tennis tour, she and other players estimated that $10,000 was a fair amount of prize money based on what they were being paid under the table. Yet they played for one dollar in their first tournament, which was sponsored by Virginia Slims. The tagline, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” seems ahead of its time, considering that King earned only a forty-five dollar gift voucher for clothing after winning three Wimbledon titles. All the while, her male counterparts were making hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.

King had no shortage of difficult experiences. There was an ex-husband who told the media about an abortion she had before the topic was widely discussed, revelation of her lesbianism, and subsequent abandonment by endorsers. But, even after sixteen knee operations, she still plays half-court tennis.

One of King’s biggest frustrations is the $135 million more that male college athletes receive than their female counterparts do. According to the National Women’s Law Center, female athletes earn ten percent fewer scholarship dollars than their male peers, despite Title IX’s insistence that all athletes have fair access to athletic scholarship money. Only sixty-six out of the 309 schools with the largest athletic programs currently run profit-making athletic programs. The others depend on university support, state and federal money, and student activities fees.

Less than 43 percent of women’s teams, and fewer than 2 percent of men’s teams, have a female head coach. Athletic directors and coaches at the symposium commented on how a major disparity remains in the salary of female coaches, and called for positions to be opened to women to compensate them based on their market value. More incentives are needed for young women who want to become professional coaches and athletic administrators; the option seems to be an afterthought, and available only to extremely talented athletes, not just interested women with business sense.

Commemorators of the thirty fifth anniversary stressed the importance of being vigilant about Title IX while improving programs for both male and female athletes. The goal is not to reduce the number of men’s programs, but to maintain equity, they explained. Creating co-ed teams are another possibility for reducing money and increasing attention. More attention to marketing women’s programs is needed for increasing turnout at games, speakers on one panel agreed. I think that the chance to regularly see action shots of women in sports uniforms gives girls a better idea of who they can look up to, and it helps maintain a dialogue too often limited to two weeks of Olympic play every few years. King complained that girls receive a quarter of a million commercial messages about how they should look by the time they are seventeen.

Other memorable speakers included: 

Jane Booth, a forty seven-year-old British expatriate compelled to train for a triathlon, for reasons unknown to her five years ago. She said that during the run portion (“perpetually difficult as I have a hate/hate relationship with running”) of her first event, the San Jose International Triathlon, she realized she needed to see if she had the guts to train and race after twenty-one years of relative physical inactivity. Olympic gold medalist and former US national soccer team member Brandi Chastain wrote the foreword to Transformation by Triathlon: The Making of an Iimprobable Athlete, the book Booth recently wrote and self-published.

June Soloman, a Trinidadian woman pursuing a Master’s degree in athletic management to find ways to market roller soccer, a new sport combining inline skating and European football. The closing of many roller skating franchises around the country means she’s trying to draw up a new formula for recruiting talented athletes for the sport she developed with husband Zach Phillips.

Tara VanDerveer, the current coach of the Stanford women’s basketball team, who led the U.S. women’s team to Olympic gold in Atlanta. Even though she couldn’t join a team, she diagramed plays as a child. She regularly reminds her players how important it is that they have both the opportunity to play, and to receive scholarships. “I’m worried that they’ll have a sense of entitlement about their chances to play sports,” VanDerveer said. “Many girls have no idea what their mothers fought for.”

Lisa Izze, the creator of Athletic Girls Productions, a new media company striving to raise awareness through positive role models. Izze was a college gymnast who coached at Stanford for eleven years, while raising three children by herself. She wants to create a platform for young girls that highlights the health benefits of being active. I really like her idea for creating more intergenerational conversation between experienced athletes and children.

While waiting at a stop light toward the end of my bike ride the next day, during training for a 545-mile ride for AIDS research, from San Francisco to Los Angeles (potentially the biggest athletic feat of my life so far, and one that gets me excited and frightened), a man who’d been riding the same course looked at me. “You’re a tough little cookie,” he said. A surprising comment given the fact that he said this to me and none of the men who’d been riding with us. What would King have replied?

Probably the same thing she told the Stanford crowd. “Men and women need to walk side by side and respect each other. It’s important to understand where we’ve been so we know where we’re going with it.”

But shoppers this side of the Atlantic need not worry—the totes are are rumored to be sold in the US this summer for $15 at Whole Foods stores.


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