Unoffically at least, this could be the month (or the season) of the female athlete.
The eight-team Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) opened its inaugural 10-week season on Saturday, following in the footsteps of the American Basketball League. Then there's the new Women's Professional Fastpitch softball league, which made its debut on May 30. And, finally, today marks the 25th anniversary of Title IX, legislation that prohibits sex discrimination at any educational institution that receives federal funds.
What does it all mean? It means women are no longer relegated to standing on the sidelines watching the game. Now they are the game. Women's professional basketball, for example, got a great boost from the success of female college teams like the University of Connecticut Huskies, to say nothing of Team USA's gold medal at the 1996 Olympics. The WNBA has been backed by such powerhouse sponsors as Nike, Coca-Cola, and American Express, while its games will be broadcast on three networks - ESPN, NBC, and the Lifetime channel.
Much of the credit should go to Title IX. A string of recent Title IX cases have established legal guidelines for the fair treatment of female athletes, pushing colleges and universities to find room in their athletic budgets for women. Since the law was enacted in 1972, girls' sports "have exploded," as one columnist put it. Before Title IX, 1 out of 27 high school girls played sports. Now it's 1 out of 3. The boost in athletic scholarship money for women also is impressive.
Yet, equality remains elusive. Even some WNBA supporters argue that league games should be a main event, not relegated to the slower summer months. And, just in time for Title IX's 25th anniversary, the National Women's Law Center has filed complaints against 25 colleges it says don't give women athletes equal opportunities. The Women's Sports Foundation also released a "gender equity report card," reviewing NCAA Division I, II, and III schools. The survey found that many schools still are allocating about twice as many athletic resources to men as to women.
As the complaints by the National Women's Law Center and the survey by the Women's Sports Foundation indicate, the (significant) progress made under Title IX should be kept in perspective. The law was enacted in 1972 because assumptions about women and athletics were evolving - and they still are. We're quite sure, though, that the chance to watch some women's basketball this summer - women's professional basketball that is - will only help.