Title IX Has Helped Women Make a Great Leap Forward

Now Congress may rewrite law that opened up athletics

WHEN I attended elementary school 25 years ago, I wanted to play basketball. But the only athletic activity available to girls at my school was cheering for the boys as they played basketball.

In eighth grade, my school gave girls time during gym class to practice on the cheerleading squad. Every girl in the class took part except me. I thought it was idiotic to cheer for boys who, no matter how untalented, had a chance to try out for an athletic team when girls, no matter how gifted, were denied that opportunity.

The world of athletics outside of school was just as unforgiving of females. Little League baseball excluded girls. There were no soccer leagues that involved girls. My brothers competed in crew through a club that banned females from joining.

So during gym class, while my classmates practiced chanting, ''Tony! Tony! He's our man! If he can't do it, nobody can!'' I worked off my anger by shooting foul shots on the basketball court.

That is also why I was cheering and shouting in my living room recently when Jennifer Rizzotti -- only 5 feet, 5 inches tall -- stole the basketball, blew past the Lady Vols of Tennessee, drove down the court, and made a flying, left-handed layup to give the University of Connecticut Huskies the lead with less than two minutes left in the NCAA championship game. She put the Huskies ahead, and they went on to become the first team from the Northeastern United States to win the women's collegiate basketball championship.

I loved it when thousands of people waited hours to give the returning team a hero's welcome; the governor, too, met the plane at the airport with bouquets of long-stemmed red roses for each team member.

And I loved when Sports Illustrated, in editions zoned for the Northeast, put Rizzotti's fast break on the cover.

But, at the risk of taking anything away from the Huskies' accomplishment, it wasn't just their come-from-behind victory that gave fans this moment of celebrating women in sports. The team, and women's athletics everywhere, had a little help.

They had a federal law called Title IX, which Congress passed in 1972. Title IX forbids gender discrimination in educational programs or activities that receive federal funds. The law opens up opportunities for women's athletics. It requires schools to assess which sports males and females wish to participate in, then attempt to meet those needs and give athletic scholarships in proportion to male and female participation in sports.

Enacting Title IX wasn't easy.

''Colleges and universities had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this,'' says Leslie Wolfe, president of the Center for Women's Policy Studies in Washington. ''The board of NCAA got quite hysterical about it and said, and I quote, 'This will mean the end of intercollegiate athletics as we know it.' They were panicked.''

But when Title IX was implemented, the response among young women was immediate. Consider these statistics from the National Women's Law Center:

r When Congress passed Title IX in 1972, women represented a mere 2 percent of the nation's college varsity athletes and received only 0.5 percent of athletic budgets. Athletic scholarships for women were nonexistent.

r The number of college women participating in athletic competition has soared from 16,000 before Title IX to more than 158,000, with women now representing 35 percent of college athletes nationwide.

r In the four years after Title IX passed, women's participation in college sports jumped 600 percent, disproving claims that women don't care about sports.

r Before Title IX, fewer than 300,000 high school girls played competitive sports. By 1994, the number had climbed to 2.12 million, with more than 127,000 new female athletes entering high school sports programs in 1993 alone.

But now the advances of Title IX are threatened. Congress, under the new Republican leadership, is scheduling oversight hearings to consider weakening Title IX. The House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee will hold hearings on the law in May. Later this year, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will have hearings, according to April Osajima, senior program associate for the American Association of University Women.

FOES are targeting Title IX requirements that force colleges to give athletic opportunities to men and women in proportion to their numbers involved in sports. The House will consider a proposal to exempt the huge number of male athletes involved in college football when schools try to comply with the law. ''If that happened, overnight, colleges could stop attempting to meet needs of women athletes,'' Ms. Osajima says.

Other inequities remain for women athletes. In the NCAA basketball tournament, women were forced to play back-to-back games in the semifinals and finals while men's teams received a one-day break between games. And television didn't linger for the presentation of the trophy to the women's team as is traditional for men's teams. There are no seven-figure NBA contracts waiting for the women players and no professional leagues (in the United States) in which they can continue to display their talents.

My daughter has no hoop dreams so far; she wants to be a dancer. But if she wants to play basketball, she can. And she might even consider cheerleading. Students can get a college scholarship for that, too.

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