Title IX celebration is a night to remember

By Tom Rietmann | June 22, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS -- WNBA President Laurel Richie made the trip to Indiana on Thursday and joined 6,326 fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse as they celebrated the 40th anniversary of the momentous Title IX legislation.

Richie wanted to be on hand to honor former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh, who co-authored the 1972 measure. She wanted to experience the Indiana Fever's version of the Title IX celebration, which is part of a league-wide initiative this season. And she was more than willing to relate a personal story about the far-reaching effects of Title IX.

Richie talked about her 6-year-old niece who lives in Chicago. 

“Her first outing to a professional basketball game was to the (WNBA's) Chicago Sky, and then she went to see the (NBA's) Chicago Bulls play,” Richie said. “She turned to her mother (at the Bulls game) and said, 'Mommy, I didn't know boys played basketball.' Out of the mouths of babes, right?

“I loved that notion. For her, she was being so gracious saying, 'That's really great. A sport we love, we as women are sharing that with the boys. Isn't that just great?' I don't think she would have made that statement had we not had Title IX.”

The power of Title IX, which painted a whole new vista of opportunities for females, spurred the WNBA and the Fever to make sure the anniversary of its enactment would be remembered properly.

The 84-year-old Bayh, the night's guest of honor, traveled from the Washington D.C. area. The Fever also celebrated five women -- Ann Meyers Drysdale, Lyn St. James, Myra Selby, Sarah Evans Baker and Katherine Davis -- who were pioneers in various fields from basketball to auto racing to law. Sue Anne Gilroy, Indiana's first female Secretary of State from 1994 to 2003, couldn't attend due to the birth of a grandchild.

Richie, who has spent more than three decades in upper echelons of the marketing and public relations world, emphasized her views on the importance of Title IX. The legislation altered the course of history for young women by ensuring their equality in education and sports endeavors.

“I am acutely aware of the fact that in many ways Title IX has helped create a very rich, robust and talented pipeline to the WNBA,” she said. “I think it was a piece of legislation that all Americans should be celebrating, but we as the WNBA have an even more vested interest in celebrating it. (We)  really wanted to make sure we were paying tribute to those who have paved the way.”

Title IX's emphasis on athletic scholarship equity has helped make women's basketball one of the nation's most popular sports at the college level. Those same young women advance and thrive in the WNBA, which is going strong in its 16th year.

Richie was asked if perhaps the league owes its very existence to Title IX.

“I hope we'd be talking about this league,” Richie said. “What I don't know is whether we'd have such skilled athletes coming in. I think the league would exist, but what I think Title IX ensured is that every girl who had the interest and talent got the opportunity to hone her skills and continue to get better. We think of the athletes getting better and better, but we also think of the coaching staffs getting better and better.”

However, in its early years, Title IX wasn't exactly embraced by some male coaches and sports administrators. There were still tough times for women in athletics. Richie said she's heard the stories about teams having to sleep in gyms on overnight trips, or three different girls squads having to share one set of uniforms.

But some key people in the United States stayed watchful that high schools and colleges adhered to Title IX's stipulations. Bayh ranked high among them.

Richie, who met Bayh for the first time during a recent White House recognition ceremony for Title IX, understands what the Terre Haute area native means to his home state of Indiana. She grasped the significance of Thursday night's event for Hoosiers who have the opportunity to call Bayh one of their own.

“It's a special night for the initiative, and it's a special night for Indiana in particular,” Richie said. “He is, to me, what is so great about America -- someone who sees a need, takes action, fights for it and sees it through. And he's a very humble man. When you think of the way he literally changed the course of the lives of millions of young girls, that's big. And he just sort of presents himself as a guy who was just trying to do the right thing.”

Bayh and the five women trailblazers were part of a panel discussion during the Fever's Title IX celebration at The Fieldhouse. The women talked about their experiences connected to the legislation.

Ann Meyers Drysdale was one of the finest female basketball players in history and, after signing to try out with the Pacers in 1979, she still stands as the only woman to ink an NBA contract. In 1975, she was offered an athletic scholarship to play women's basketball at UCLA.

“That never would have happened without Title IX,” said Meyers Drysdale, who recently authored her autobiography entitled “You Let Some Girl Beat You?”

Lyn St. James was the first woman to collect the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award after she finished 11th in the 1992 race. She said her childhood experiences in athletics were likely what gave her “the courage” to begin racing cars. She noted that the increasing number of females in racing today is probably a result of the parents of those young women experiencing Title IX's advancements and wanting every opportunity for their kids.

Myra Selby was the first woman and the first African American to serve as an associate justice on the Indiana Supreme Court. She grew up with parents who were involved in the civil rights movement. Selby said she viewed Title IX not through an athletics prism but as “another opportunity for equality in education.”

Sarah Evans Barker is a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. She described herself as “pre-Title IX,” but her athletic ability enabled her to enjoy and thrive in intramural sports in college. She was a young staffer in the U.S. Senate in 1972 when Title IX was enacted.

“It empowers and it encourages,” she said about the legislation.

Katherine Davis was the first woman to serve as lieutenant governor of Indiana. She said Title IX passed on the eve of her 16th birthday. A few years later, she was working toward a mechanical engineering degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then a graduate degree from the Harvard Business School.

“Senator Bayh,” Davis said, looking toward the guest of honor, “thank you. If you had not stood with women, the culture would be different today.”

When Bayh spoke during the panel discussion, his modesty stood out. He deflected credit to others. He talked extensively about the strong and smart women in his life -- his grandmother, his wife Kitty and his late wife Marvella.

And he wanted those in attendance to stay attuned to equality for women in all fields and endeavors.

“We have to be eternally vigilant, and I want all of you here to be exactly that,” Bayh said. 

Later, when Bayh was introduced to The Fieldhouse crowd before the Fever played the Connecticut Sun, many of the fans rose as one and applauded loudly. It's safe to say that those fans recognized -- and perhaps had first-hand experience of -- the watershed work that Bayh produced in 1972.