How Far We've Come

orty years ago, the price of a gallon of gas was 36 cents, Marlon Brando was making offers that couldn’t be refused and the Internet was still stuff of science fiction.

Those differences, however, don’t seem so immense when compared to the changes experienced in women’s athletics in that same time span.

This year is the 40th anniversary of Title IX -- a legendary 37-word piece of legislation that changed the landscape of women’s athletics forever -- and as we take a moment to look back, as we will all season on, it’s hard not to be reminded of how much we have progressed in 40 years.

“The anniversary means a lot to me because it tells a story about how far we’ve come,” Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker said. “A generation ago, my mom wasn’t able to play basketball in her high school. She wasn’t even able to wear jeans in high school.”

A generation ago, my mom wasn’t able to play basketball in her high school. She wasn’t even able to wear jeans in high school.
- Candace Parker
Parker can laugh now, in retrospect, about her mom not being able to wear jeans, but the social climate for women in 1972 was a far cry from what women experience today. And, these inequalities, as Minnesota's Seimone Augustus points out, extended far beyond athletics.

“I think it was a big move for our country,” Augustus said. “It was about equal rights for women in general, not just sports. It's about fairness and justice and economic and job opportunities. It affected women in every field.”

The legislation states that there should be equality amongst the sexes in terms of participating in any and all education programs -- including sports -- that receive federal financial aid. As a result, female athletics boomed in college and the idea of the woman student-athlete started to take hold.

In 2010-11, there were 9,746 women’s teams competing in over 20 different sports at the college level. Powerhouse programs like Connecticut and Tennessee women’s basketball or Stanford women’s tennis, just to name a few, are thriving, often trumping the popularity of their male sport counterparts.

One of the biggest, albeit indirect, end results of this new focus on women’s athletics was the WNBA -- the world’s most successful professional women's sports league. Started 16 years ago, the WNBA has given generations of aspiring women’s basketball players -- like many in the league today, including Washington's Ashley Robinson -- something visible to strive for.

I was a product that got exposed to the WNBA as a kid. I was 14 years old and I started dreaming.
- Ashley Robinson
"I was a product that got exposed to the WNBA as a kid,” said Robinson, an 8-year WNBA veteran. “I was 14 years old and I started dreaming. To give other kids that dream, it’s nice to give them that opportunity too. I like how, for little girls, they now have the WNBA to strive to be in. My mother didn’t have that dream. Even some of the WNBA players weren’t able to get into the league until they were in their 30s."

An opportunity. That’s what this is all about. Title IX gave many of today’s stars that chance that otherwise would have been non-existent. Many of today’s stars get to travel the world and play internationally, meet people from all walks of life and, above all else, play a game for a living.

This is something that is not lost on them.

“I am so thankful and blessed that we are where we are today, 40 years after Title IX,” Augustus said. “My generation, it was always there. There was always an opportunity where I could maybe play in college if I worked hard enough and I was fortunate enough to play at the collegiate level and even beyond that, professionally. I never had that feeling as a child that I couldn't reach my dream of playing basketball in college or professionally. That fear -- that thinking -- that was there before Title IX because prior to Title IX there was very little option or opportunity for women -- young girls -- to go to college and play the game we love.”

I am so thankful and blessed that we are where we are today, 40 years after Title IX.
- Seimone Augustus
For many WNBA players and other female athletes, the opportunities spawned by Title IX have paved the way for their fulfilling lives - doing what they love. And Parker said it is now commonplace for women to be viewed as professional athletes, a distinction that was once predominantly reserved for men.

“I realized this recently when I looked into the stands one day and saw a little boy wearing my jersey,” Parker said. “We’re being respected as athletes now. Even my nephew Julian, he’s the biggest basketball fan, and he bought my jersey. He doesn’t have anybody else’s jersey.”

The WNBA just experienced its fifth consecutive year of increasing overall attendance in 2011 as well as having its highest ratings on ESPN2 -- an average of 270,000 viewers per game -- since 2005. So, it's increasingly evident that basketball fans have come to appreciate the women’s game, and that's all a result of giving women the opportunity to follow their athletic dreams.

“Personally, basketball has been a big part of my life since I was nine years old and I honestly don’t know what I'd do -- or what I would have done -- without it,” Augustus said.

Forty years ago it would have been unfathomable to conceive of the WNBA in its current form. Augustus would have never been named a WNBA Finals MVP, Parker would have never won a regular season MVP award and Robinson would have never won a WNBA title. In fact, they might have never even dreamed those things possible.

“That's something I will always appreciate,” Augustus said. “That because of Title IX, I and so many other girls could grow up in a country where you can dream those dreams and the opportunity is there to achieve them.”