This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX, which was signed into law by then-President Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972, six days after the Watergate break-in.
The law is an astoundingly simple 37 words:
“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.”
Note that this says nothing about sports.
And yet the world of sports is the arena in which the Title IX political game has been played – with an overwhelming victory for female athletes. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, about 294,000 girls competed in high school sports the year before Title IX became law. Last year, the number was nearly 3.2 million, an increase of about 980%.
One of the great ironies of the Nixon administration might be the fact that the Watergate week marked a watershed moment for the future of, literally, hundreds of millions of American women.
Things seem to be so solid for women’s sports as Title IX reaches the four decade mark that it is tempting to say the job is done. Every girl who wants to play a sport, or two or five, is playing them. Title IX, schmitle IX, who cares? Let’s say thanks, and move on.
We should say our thank yous, but I don’t think it’s time to move on. In fact, I think the struggle to enforce Title IX is more relevant than ever.
(Again: who ever said it was about SPORTS? Why are we content with giving our daughters balls and bats, without also using looking for ways to use Title IX to wage a political war against the other forms of discrimination that are apparently rampant at U.S. educational institutions – all of which receive Federal financial assistance, through Pell grants, Stafford loans, and so forth?)
But since the 40th anniversary should be a time for celebration, and not for griping, let me say thanks.
Respect and thanks are of course due to the early pioneers: to Bernice Sandler, who used President Johnson’s Executive Order 11375 to wage a legal battle for her job at the University of Maryland in 1969, and then joined Representative Edith Green in the congressional hearings where the idea for Title IX was born; to Representative Patsy Mink, who prepared an early draft of the legislation; to Senator Birch Bayh, who was the author and chief sponsor of Title IX, etc.
But I think thanks are also due to the legions of gadfly fathers – “dadflys” is the term Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff recently coined – who took the legislation to heart and pushed for change in sports programs and stadiums across the country.
One of my favorite dadflys is a retiree named Herb Dempsey, a 75-year-old grandfather from Battle Ground, Washington, who is a self-proclaimed “nasty old man”, and has spent the past 20 years making Title IX enforcement his full-time hobby. He uses Google Earth to identify possible shoddy sports facilities – and, if his investigation turns up an underfunded girls’ program, he uses Title IX to force change.
Dempsey has filed more than 1000 complaints with the Office of Civil Rights challenging inequities in high school athletics. One example was a case in Castle Rock, Washington, where girls’ soccer games had to be shortened to 32 minutes from 80 minutes because there were no lights on the field—even though a football field with lights was available not far away.
“It’s hard to believe how bad it still is,” Dempsey told Sports Illustrated, “because people want to celebrate how good it has become.”