Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Little Clause that Changed Everything

I have intended for a while to post about Title IX, which recently turned 40 years old. I wasn't sure what I would post, though, until the effect of this very American law was made clear by the most international of sporting events, the Olympics.

I am certain that the legislators that passed Title IX, and the athletic directors and universities that it impacted, did not appreciate the import of that law when it was enacted. The law simply provides: "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."

As we now know, that simple law, through its application (or imposition as the case may be) upon universities that receive federal assistance led to an explosion of women's sports in the U.S.

The recent Olympics and an excellent article in the Globe and Mail helped me realize that Title IX's impact has affected sports, and equality, well beyond our borders. Yes, the U.S. women's soccer team won its third straight gold medal at the London Games. And our women's basketball players, gymnasts, track athletes, and even markswomen again shone. But the fact that they did so against increasingly global, and talented, opposition speaks to the impact that the law has had over most of the world.

Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd celebrate their win over Japan.

It was bound to happen, I suppose: an increase in attention to, and spending on, women's collegiate athletics in the United States increased participation and proficiency as more and better female athletes were identified and received top-flight training and coaching. What was less obvious was that this would eventually have a global effect as other nations, intent on keeping pace in the competitive, nationalistic arena of international sports (seems like an oxymoron, doesn't it?), trained and identified female athletes or risked falling hopelessly behind.

Title IX's positive influence on women's athletics, though, has been local as well as global. At the start of every soccer season, when talking to parents about the upcoming season I would remind them that high school sports are about success. We were well past the stage where every player received a participation trophy; we were going to play and coach every match to win. That would mean that some players were not going to play much, if at all, in close contests.

I would acknowledge that the players and parents made a tremendous sacrifice to be a part of our team, in time at practice and time away from studies or home, and that each player and parent had to decide whether that cost was worth the benefit. If the benefit was viewed solely as playing time, then surely it would not be worth it for some.

But I also would always mention that the players on our team were offered an opportunity that simply wasn't present when I or most of the players' parents were in high school. And that was the value of simply being a team member. Team sports teach common effort, subservience of individual desires for the good of the whole, and build camaraderie far beyond the playing field in ways that simply cannot be learned in the class room, or even in individual sports.

I firmly believe that while we now see the results of Title IX in the Olympics and on fields of play, we are also increasingly seeing the benefit to society as a whole as women assume, and prove their ability to perform, jobs at the highest level in business, in government, and in coaching. Perhaps most importantly, sports teach women that it's okay to be who they are, that they are valued and equal members of a team and of society in every setting. And they help us to cast aside old stereotypes of what woman can and cannot, or should and should not, do.

As Mary Jo Kane, a professor of sport sociology at the University of Minnesota, who was quoted extensively in the Globe article, simply and succinctly noted regarding our current crop of female athletes: "They talk," Kane said, "about watching the Olympics as little girls and remember saying, 'I want to do that too.' And they have. They are no longer tokens or outliers or tomboys."

An impressive legacy for a 37 word statute, and a reminder that although change seems to occur maddeningly slowly at times, we continue to move toward equality on many fronts.

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