This past weekend, Nancy and I went up to Nashville to see the U.S. women’s national soccer team play Japan in a group stage match of the She Believes Cup. The tickets were a gift to us from our younger daughter, who knows how much we love soccer, who shares that passion with us, and who has, since she was tiny, loved, loved, loved the U.S. women’s team.
When our daughters were nine and five years old, we took them to Birmingham, Alabama to see the women’s team play a “friendly” against Brazil. The teams have been arch-rivals forever and no game between them is ever actually friendly, but we’ll leave that for another day. Both girls has already been following the U.S. team for a while. They idolized the stars on that team — Julie Foudy, Abby Wambach, and, of course, the incomparable Mia Hamm. In fact, both girls played youth-league soccer in their respective age groups, and both girls wore number 9, which was Hamm’s number. They would both continue to wear number 9 through middle school and high school.
That day in Birmingham, they were in for a treat. We’d told them they would be seeing the U.S. women’s team, but somehow they had convinced themselves and each other that we were going somewhere to watch them on a big screen, or something. Honestly, Nancy and I weren’t certain what they thought. But when we got to the stadium, and they saw their heroes right there! — On the pitch! In the flesh! — they kind of freaked out.
The women won that game against Brazil 5-1. Mia Hamm assisted on three of the goals (including two by Wambach) and scored one herself. The girls were in heaven.
I bring all of this up by way of getting to the main point, which is this: Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 turned fifty years old last year. Title IX is a broad, wide-ranging law that prevents sexual discrimination in any and all private and public educational institutions, at any level, that receive federal funds. The law is designed to prevent harassment and violence, as well as discrimination, and it provides for mechanisms to combat these things. But for much of its history, Title IX has been most well-known — and, at times, most controversial — for its impact on school athletics.
For the record, here are some things Title IX does NOT do. It doesn’t require that men and women’s sports in various schools be identical, or even that they have the exact same budgets. It doesn’t require that women have a football team if the men do, or anything of the sort. Rather, it demands proportional equity. If men playing football have access to state-of-the-art safety equipment, then women playing field hockey must have access to the same. If both men and women are playing soccer at a certain school, then yes, the teams should have access to equal facilities and equipment.
It is, contrary to what many critics have said over the years, a fantastic law, one that has empowered generations of girls and young women with athletic ambitions. Like the stars on the U.S. women’s soccer team, and the stars in the Women’s National Basketball Association, and female U.S. Olympians in just about any sport. And like my daughters.
My sister, Liz, whose birthday it is today, was always a terrific athlete. She LOVED baseball as a kid and still does to this day. By the time Title IX became law, she had graduated from high school. She missed out on playing organized sports during her school years, and she wasn’t allowed to play Little League. If she had been, she would have been a star player in our small town. Title IX changed not only the rules surrounding educational institutions, but also our culture at large.
My daughters grew up playing soccer and also swimming competitively. Erin played volleyball for a while in middle school. Both girls were accomplished athletes (something they got from their mother, not me). But more than that, thanks to their involvement in team sports, both girls grew more confident, more resilient, more community-minded. Athletics made them into their better selves.
Nancy and I grew up in the early years of Title IX, when schools across the country were scrambling to catch up with the requirements of the new law. Nancy probably would have been more active in team sports as a high-schooler had the law come along a few years earlier.
Which might have been why last year she presided, as acting president of her university, over a singular celebration of Title IX’s 50th anniversary. At the university athletic hall of fame induction ceremony, her school recognized women sports pioneers — women whose matriculation preceded the passage of Title IX, but who nevertheless fought for inclusion in university athletics. Many of them trained with the men’s teams in various sports, and organized unofficial competitions with like-minded women from other schools. They had no official statistics with which to establish their credentials for the school hall of fame, so Nancy and others at the school involved current undergraduates in an oral history project that was designed to enshrine the stories of these women in the annals of university lore. What a worthy endeavor.
Title IX has done wonders for our educational institutions in many ways — preventing discrimination, addressing incidents of harassment and assault that years ago would have gone unnoticed or unacknowledged. And yes, we need to make far more progress in this regard. But the law has had an impact.
And with regard to women’s sports, it has inspired and enabled and drawn national, even global, attention to the athletic achievements of so many deserving women. I know from personal experience that in households like ours across the country it has enriched the lives of young athletes and of the parents who cheer for them.
By the way, at this weekend’s tournament, we watched the U.S. beat Japan 1-0, in a hard-fought match. We also saw the first half of the Canada v. Brazil match, which Canada won 2-0.
Have a great week.