Inside the W with Michelle Smith: 50 Years of Title IX

Sue Bird, the oldest player in the WNBA (sorry, Sue…), was born eight years after Title IX was made the law of the land in 1972. The youngest player in the WNBA, 20-year-old Awak Kuier of the Dallas Wings, was born more than three decades post-Title IX.

The WNBA players that dazzle us and inspire us only know a landscape in which a landmark piece of Civil Rights legislation 50 years ago knocked down barriers and ensured their opportunities to pursue their dreams.

At 54, with nearly 30 years of covering women’s sports under my belt, I am part of a generation that gets to look at Title IX from both directions. Back and forward. With and without. Before and after. It is a clarifying view, to be sure.

My aunts, my father’s trio of older sisters who helped to prepare their baby brother to raise two strong, empowered daughters of his own, used to tell me about when they played sports in a Catholic school in Oakland, California, in the late ’50s and early 60s. Three-on-three “games” in button-down white shirts, shorts to the knee, white canvas tennis shoes, offense vs. defense limited to half-court with the nuns watching closely to ensure it didn’t get out of hand.

“It went on for days,” my Auntie Pat said. “Because they’d make you sit out a turn at every changeover. That’s what it was at the time.”

It would never have dawned on my mother to be an athlete. Cheerleaders were the only girls she knew who participated in any sport. I was four years old when Title IX was signed into federal law, and my life changed not even a little at that moment.

But I was in third grade, maybe four years later, when I packed my Holly Hobby bag, walked down the block to my elementary school to join the baseball team, and got sent home because it was a boys-only team.

My dad said there was a local girls’ softball league, and I could sign up for that.
My life, at that moment, changed profoundly in ways I wouldn’t realize for years.

My childhood memories, friendships, vacations, and our dinner table conversations are built almost entirely on an opportunity that my mother and my aunts were never afforded. I was an athlete.
I remember choosing between dancing lessons and softball because we couldn’t afford both. I chose softball. I remember playing catch with my dad in the front yard. I remember being selected for an All-Star team only to discover that the tournament conflicted with our family’s pre-planned vacation. I stayed with a teammate so that I could play. I remember my dad taking out a loan because our 15-year-old team hadn’t raised enough money to send the entire team to Hawaii to play.

I remember crying at the end of every high school softball season because it was over, and I didn’t want it to be. I remember winning games, and I remember losing games. I remember the year I tore my quadriceps and caught the whole season anyway. I remember getting plowed over by a runner at home plate on the day before Senior Prom, furious that I might end up with a bruise that would show in my pictures.

What does this have to do with the WNBA? Everything. Because every WNBA player has an origin story that also began with an opportunity that generations of women didn’t have before.

After a half-century of experiencing its benefits, we know that opportunity is everything. And also not enough because inequities persist, and our expectations shift upwards. We see how the world has changed, and we know there is more change to be made.

As we all mark this 50th Anniversary of Title IX, we can look at the numbers:
● A 12-fold increase in sports participation by girls.
● Nearly three times as many women participate in college athletics.
● Ninety-four percent of women in C-Suite positions are former athletes.

And we use this milestone as a chance for celebration and reflection; someone, at some point, will inevitably say, “We shouldn’t take it for granted.”

I disagree. I think we should absolutely take it for granted. And demand more.

We can appreciate, thanks to the stroke of President Nixon’s pen, the number of girls who took a court or a field as a young girl and carried that passion into high school or college. Girls who became competitors and captains and champions, or just became who they would end up being for the rest of their lives – more confident, empowered, and successful – because they had an opportunity to play.

The WNBA players are the most talented, skilled players on the planet. They are role models. They represent the highest bar of achievement for women in sports. They reflect what Title IX has provided to women at the most elite level on the spectrum.

Yet it’s worth remembering that the same spectrum is filled with women molded by their own experiences in sports to become teachers and coaches, business owners and executives, political leaders, doctors and nurses, so many paths laid down for them thanks to the benefits of Title IX.
Of all the feelings we might have about this vital milestone moment – reflection, pride, even appreciation…I must admit that I’m struggling with the gratitude part.

It’s conflicting to be grateful for an opportunity that was my right, is my daughter’s right, your niece’s right. You’re right. I don’t want to be compelled to be thankful that someone deigned to codify into law something that should have never needed to be codified.

Our female athletes need more exposure, attention, equity, and inclusion – with girls of color, with disabilities, and trans youth – to get what they are entitled to under the law. They deserve to feel more than merely “lucky to play,” as that was the case in the early years after Title IX passed, as the law was ignored, challenged, and attempts were made to dismantle it.

A proper celebration should not obscure the realities.

A report by the Women’s Sports Foundation released last month indicates that girls still have fewer opportunities to participate in high school sports than boys did in 1972. In high schools, 60 percent of girls participate in sports compared to 75 percent of boys.

Women account for 60 percent of the student body at the collegiate level but just 43 percent of athletes. And women are receiving a quarter of a billion dollars less in college athletic scholarships than men.
The impact of Title IX is without question. Also, without question, is the impact that it can still have. There’s plenty of work to be done. Let’s get to it.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.