Athletes in every sense

Title IX, the federal law that went into effect in 1972 says: “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 educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Back in the days before Title IX, the opportunities for girls and women to play sports were hit or miss, at best. And most girls who aspired to any kind of athletic endeavor endured unequal treatment or outright discrimination in some form or another.

If you were a female basketball player living in Iowa in 1949, your state tournament was a bigger deal than the boys tournament. But in Maine, there would be no girls state tournament for another two decades.

When I first started coaching basketball in 1973, a game between my high school team and another school was ended well before the buzzer sounded – it was time for the freshman boys to practice.

And so it went until Title IX, which became the law of the land in 1972, began being enforced in subsequent years. Since then, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, female participation in high school sports has increased by more than 900 percent. In 1972, just 1 in 27 girls participated in high school varsity sports. Today, that number has increased to about 2 in 5.

Girls today are growing up with the understanding that they can play all the games the boys do – in Maine, even football, with the Maine Rebels team – and that there are opportunities to take their game to whatever level they choose. They can aspire to earn a college scholarship in anything from crew to volleyball, and they can find opportunities to continue playing whatever game they love well into adulthood.

Women’s sports has also captured the imagination of the sports-viewing public. It’s possible now to turn on the TV and find women competing in so many more athletic events than figure skating. There are still Neanderthals out there who pooh-pooh the women’s game as an inferior product. Yet the Women’s World Cup soccer final match between the U.S. and Japan several weeks ago was ESPN’s most watched soccer match, male or female – ever.

But when Title IX turns 40 in January, it’s not just the increased opportunities to play or watch organized sports that we should celebrate. The law has helped transform societal attitudes toward female athletes so completely that the word “tomboy” has become an anachronism.

When my mother was a little girl, she played baseball with the boys in her neighborhood (even breaking the nose of one batter with an errant pitch). But like many girls, she grew out of her love for sports, not just because the opportunities were few, but because it wasn’t appropriate past the age of 10. Today, little girls routinely continue on, perfecting their games, honing their skills, and learning all the valuable lessons that athletics are meant to impart.

This sea change has rippled throughout society. Research shows that girls who play sports are less apt to become pregnant prematurely or to suffer from depression and eating disorders. The lessons learned and the relationships built by playing sports have proved to be important building blocks to a successful adulthood. Instilled with the confidence that comes from challenging oneself, with the wisdom that comes from navigating the team experience, and with the perspective that comes from experiencing both victory and defeat, women athletes are building successful lives for themselves everywhere in the workplace. Increasingly, they are firefighters, policemen, doctors, lawyers, dentists, CEOs, politicians, political pundits, actors, directors, sportswriters, managing editors and on and on. Even in the more traditional fields of teaching and nursing, women are more empowered than they were 40 years ago.

There are people who say these changes would have come about without Title IX. And there are people who say the law is flawed and should be changed. But the snowball that started rolling in 1972 is now an avalanche. Whether we ride our bikes or ride horseback, work out at the gym or take Zumba classes, play soccer every weekend or train for triathlons every night after work, active females have one thing in common. We run and jump, we swing and sway, we shoot and score, we just stay active – all athletes in every sense of the word.

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