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Spring 2002

A Time to Shine: Title IX Provides Lessons Beyond the Playing Field

By Susan Murad

Imagine a time when, no matter how much you wanted to —no matter how skilled you were, you simply were not allowed to participate in an activity you loved.

Imagine a world where, instead of awarding a Most Valuable Player, basketball tournaments had “Beauty Queen ” contests.

Imagine thinking there might never come a time when your abilities would be celebrated, or even known.

This was life just 30 short years ago – before the passing of Title IX, the landmark and often debated legislation signed in June of 1972 to quite literally ‘level the playing fi eld’ for women and girls in athletic competition. The wording of the law is powerful in its simplicity:

“No person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefi ts of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal aid.”

One thing that is certain – there are few who are neutral about Title IX.

Susan Bassett, vice chair of the NCAA Division III Management Council and athletics director at William Smith College, has researched the impact of Title IX as well as the impact sports has on women. She notes the number of women participating in intercollegiate athletics increased from 90,000 in 1981-82 to 163,000 in 1998-99, while men’s participation increased as well from 220,000 to 232,000 during the same time period.

“Title IX has produced more participation opportunities for girls and women, but the growth of men’s sports has been signifi cant over the same time period,” Bassett said. “Unfortunately some schools have chosen to cut men’s sports in order to fund women’s opportunities. That was never the intent of Title IX. Obviously, that approach has pitted men against women in the athletics arena. The purpose of Title IX is simply to guarantee the same opportunities for girls that we have provided for boys.”

Mike Hanna ’68, athletic director for Hobart College agrees with Bassett. “It is clear that Title IX is legislation that was long overdue,” he states.

“The problem is not with the spirit of the legislation but the implementation. Many college athletic programs, whose priorities were set by their presidents, dragged their feet in complying with the law in the 70’s and 80’s – a time when they had the budgets to add athletic programming. Sadly, by the time there was enough support for enforcing Title IX, colleges were in an economic decline mode which set into motion a negative chain of events leading to a negative view of the law."

Research has shown that a reallocation of budgets for men’s athletics that focus less heavily on ‘major’ sports such as football and basektball would allow wrestling, swimming, and gymnasticss teams to survive, thus eliminating the need to use Title IX as a ‘scapegoat.’

Mariah Burton Nelson, a former star basketball player at Stanford University and member in the fi rst U.S. women’s professional league, was recently part of a discussion on the future of Title IX held on the Hobart and William Smith campus.

Burton Nelson, an acclaimed author of four ground-breaking books, including “Are We Winning Yet?,” “The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football,” and “Embracing Victory,” also writes for Newsweek, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other publications. She uses examples from the playing fi eld to illustrate her views that Title IX is not only about sports.

“Title IX transformed how society views women and how women view themselves,” she says. “Empowerment, courage, confi dence are tangible results of sports that model leadership qualities for both women and men.”

Burton Nelson points to even more positive changes that sports bring to women’s lives. “We’re talking about some of the more obvious health benefi ts, but there’s more,” she states. “Studies show that participation in athletics helps to decrease anxiety, depression, and the chances of osteoporosis and breast cancer. Sports are also shown to increase academic performance.

“But something, often more subtle but nonetheless tangible, happens as well. Women develop courage. They learn what competition is about. They become more committed to women and bond with their teammates and co-workers.”

Burton Nelson has also seen an evolution in the attitude of men toward women athletes. While interviewing on radio and television talk shows to discuss her fi rst book in 1991, she was surprised by the resistance of men who would argue about a woman’s place in the world of sports.

“But I’ve seen a change in the past decade – there are no more fathers than there used to be, but they now have a different consciousness,” she states. “They are more receptive to the message and instead of calling a talk radio show to argue, they ask where I would suggest their daughters go for the best soccer camp.

“This proves my point – female athletes by their sheer presence have changed the way men feel about them. You see many men out there supporting women athletes. I love to go to the WNBA Washington Mystics games and see young boys with jerseys on with the names of team members on their backs. These are boys who will grow up not needing to dominate women or who won’t feel emasculated by a female boss. They understand and appreciate women in a new way.”

Betty Bayer, associate professor of psychology and director of the Fisher Center for theStudy of Women and Men at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, looks at Title IX in a more academic context.

As Blackwell Award recipient Billy Jean King said, when women change paradigms, we open the way for social change,” Bayer says. “One can’t help but be struck by how the issues and concerns raised about women in sports parallel those raised historically about women in higher education, public life, political offi ce and so on. Do women play sports — or lead — differently from men? Should women in sports — and other aspects of public life — get more attention for their fashion statements or marital status than their other successes? Will our success prevent men from succeeding?

“Changing paradigms means getting out of these kinds of constraining comparisons and constraining perspectives on who women are. To understand the ways such challenges face women is to grasp why the struggle of women in sports is central to the quality of all our lives for when women can participate fully here as elsewhere we can be more fully present in life.”

Kris Thorsness, Olympic champion rower and attorney who served as a member of the Heron Hall of Honor panel discussion on Title IX, earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin at a time that was ‘on the cusp’ of Title IX enactment. Her experiences in struggling for equality helped her and her teammates to work aggressively for their rights.

“In Wisconsin in 1978, women’s rowing had been a varsity sport for six years, but you’d never know it,” she explains. “The boathouse, lockers, showers, and offi ces were all for men, and we had to walk to the dorms from the indoor rowing tanks soaking wet in cold weather one to two miles away. Title IX was in place, but it didn’t have teeth. In spite of the fact that our team never placed below third nationally, we couldn’t get anything to change, so we—young and brash—decided to take action.

“We notifi ed the local press that something big was going to happen. When they arrived and the cameras were rolling, we stood in the lobby and took off our street clothes and changed into our practice gear! The story was picked up nationally and the public humiliation led to the use of the locker room.”

Thorsness looks at the Colleges’ celebration of Title IX and the 20th anniversary of the NCAA championships for women as unique and important.

“I’m thrilled that these anniversaries are celebrated here – it reminds me that ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!’” she laughs. “I have a feeling a celebration of Title IX is not happening on a lot of campuses. It shows that the Colleges are forward thinking. Having this coordinate men’s and women’s college system gives rise to the mindset that William Smith athletics is not just the ‘girl’s auxiliary.’ Being exposed to this brings all kinds of understanding —on the fi eld and off.”

Tiffany Jones ’99, a doctoral candidate at Springfi eld College, has grown up in the age of Title IX. She can’t imagine her life without the rights this legislation afforded.

“What can you say about a law that has literally opened so many doors for you?” she asks. “Sports is probably the most important aspect of my life - except my family and friends, of course. Not only has it given me self-confi dence but now it is my life-long passion. I’m studying sport psychology and I’m teaching students, females and males, the importance of physical activity. Without Title IX, I know that I would be a different person. It is amazing how the passage of a law 30 years ago can affect someone in so many ways. Where would I be and thousands of others like me without Title IX?"

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