American women have gone far in individual sports over the last decade. Names such as Mary Lou Retton, Joan Benoit, Chris Evert Lloyd, and Nancy Lopez all evoke images of excellence, power, endurance, and agility. Women's team sports also have enjoyed growth at the amateur level -- climaxed by the gold medal US basketball team and the silver-medal-winning volleyball squad in the 1984 Olympics.
But on the level of professional team sports and in the area of commercial success, women still have a long way to go.
``Once a woman decides the college she will go to, her `career' has really been determined,'' says tennis great Billie Jean King. ``There's nowhere to go after that. Even the Olympics are really only good for one or two women every four years.''
This was so in '84 when, despite all the medals for US women, only Retton and Benoit capitalized to any great degree via endorsements or public appearances. And except for tennis and golf, women have made little headway in pro sports.
Some close observers of women's sports feel the the biggest breakthroughs will occur in team sports.
``Boys and girls alike learn so much through playing sports,'' says Eva Auchincloss, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. ``They learn to work together to achieve a goal. Sports is fast becoming part of the regular, accepted way of life, and women deserve the opportunity to grow and to challenge themselves the same as men do.''
Auchincloss is optimistic about professional team sports for women. ``Not only is it going to happen -- it's going to happen in the '80s,'' she predicts.
This may not be a very realistic estimate, considering that women's leagues in such sports as softball, football, and basketball have been formed, only to fold within a short time. The Women's Basketball League (WBL), for example, was launched in 1978 with a lot of hoopla and eye-popping salaries for star players, but it never attracted the crowds or TV coverage necessary to survive and was disbanded three years later.
Women are much more visible in the individual sports. But as King points out, that is a different situation. Acceptance there is just one more phase of the larger acceptance of women in career jobs, contends Billie Jean, who is commissioner of a team tennis league.
Despite the failure of the WBL, many observers say the continual development of talent in the college ranks virtually ensures that women's basketball will eventually bounce back. Some predict, however, that volleyball will be the women's team sport of the future because of the Olympic success, the rising popularity of the sport in colleges, and the fact that there are no men's leagues around.
Whether women's high school and college sports will continue to grow at the phenomenal pace of the last 13 years, however, has been thrown into question by a 1984 Supreme Court ruling on a case involving Title IX.
Title IX was the 1972 legislation that forbade any education program receiving federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex. When it was enacted, girls accounted for only 7 percent of all high school athletes, while 10 years later that figure had risen to 35 percent. In colleges, the growth was from about 3 percent to 30 percent, or from 16,000 participants in '72 to more than 150,000 in '82.
A year and a half ago, however, the court ruled that Title IX was to be interpreted as ``program specific'' -- meaning that a school could lose federal funds only if it discriminated against women in the specific programs or activities receiving the funds. The bill's original backers hope to amend it and broaden its scope.
Meanwhile the Women's Sports Foundation is pushing for greater public awareness of the problem. ``We're looking towards the parents and the educators, letting them know that sports are important to girls and women, too,'' says Auchincloss. ``It is up to them, and to the kids themselves, to continue the forward progress. Women are getting into the mainstream of life, and sports are a major influence in our society. Sports are a way of competing -- they teach you to be a team player, let you learn to take risks.''
King echoes these thoughts.
``The team concept is a process of socialization,'' she says. ``Being on a team gets people ready for real life. Girls don't have those opportunities unless they compete. They must learn to cooperate, to work with others.
``I hope more women get involved in team sports, because it will help them in all aspects of their lives.''