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.�