Happy Birthday, Title IX! Equal Rights for Women's Sports

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"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
--Title IX of the Education Amendment, 1972

Signed into law by President Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972, Title IX quickly became a rallying cry for millions of women across the country. Young girls vying for a spot on the local Little League team. High school girls every bit as deserving of college athletic scholarships as their male counterparts. Female tennis and golf pros at the top of their game but earning a fraction of what the men did.

But if signing it into law was a stroke of the presidential pen, getting Title IX onto basketball courts, baseball diamonds and soccer fields has been an ongoing process.

Old ways die hard. "Athletic competition builds character in our boys," a Superior Court judge in New Haven wrote after ruling against a cross-country runner who filed suit for a spot on her high school team. "We do not need that kind of character in our girls."

PHOTO: Brandi Chastain of the US shouts after falling on her knees after she scored the last goal in a shoot-out in the finals of the Women's World Cup with China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California 10 July 1999.
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Brandi Chastain

If ever there was a moment that screamed "Thank you, Title IX," it came when soccer star Brandi Chastain pulled off her T-shirt after scoring the winning penalty kick against China at the 1999 World Cup.

"It's amazing how quiet 90,000-plus people could be," Chastain recalled. "As soon as I hit the ball, I knew I hit it well, but it took forever to get into the goal. And then once it hit the net, then it became that insanity and the celebration … it was ecstasy, it was joy, it was relief, it was exhaustion."

PHOTO: Donna de Varona
Courtesy Donna de Varona
Donna de Varona

As a child de Varona desperately wanted to play Little League with her older brother, but because she was a girl, the only position available on the team was "bat girl." When her brother was injured and switched to swimming, de Varona followed. "I started winning these little recreational races in a high school pool."

Fast forward three years, and at age 13, de Varona was on her way to Rome as the youngest member of the 1960 U.S. Olympics team. At the Tokyo Olympics, four years later, she won two gold medals. A few days after she'd won the gold, she went back to the pool, now empty, climbed up to the top of a diving tower, looked around and thought, What's next?

The male athletes had scholarships; she did not. "I had been raised to focus on winning the Olympic gold. All of a sudden you realize with some excitement and fear, that's there's been this whole progression to the Olympics, and now it's over. My male counterparts were all going to college, most on athletic scholarships. At 17, you're just beginning to peak, with nowhere to go athletically."

But it wasn't long before de Varona -- not able to bear not being around her beloved sport -- signed a contract with ABC Sports and became one of the nation's first female network sportscasters. She's still an active advocate for women's sports.

PHOTO: Birch Bayh
Courtesy Indiana University/Getty Images
Birch Bayh and Richard Nixon

He may be remembered for the Watergate scandal, but in 1972 President Nixon, a Republican, did something that seems remarkable today: He signed a law that a Democrat, a senator from Indiana named Birch Bayh, introduced on the floor of Congress.

Known as the "father of Title IX," Senator Bayh had worked on the Equal Rights Amendment, which never received the backing of enough states to become law. "The time had come," he said recently, when "we're not going to take 'no' for an answer." Nevertheless, "we still need to keep on our guard." As a lawyer in private practice in Washington, D.C., Bayh has filed numerous amicus briefs over the years in support of Title IX.

And the law has made a difference in the lives of many young women. Forty years ago, fewer than 300,000 girls participated in high school sports, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. In the 2010-2011 school year, that number had risen to 3 million-plus.

PHOTO: American tennis player Billie Jean King in action during a semi final in the women's singles championship at Wimbledon.
Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images
Billie Jean King

The year after Title IX was signed into law, King faced off against former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion Bobby Riggs, in the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match. The scene would put today's reality shows to shame: Riggs, 55, played Male Chauvinist Pig par excellence; he was carried onto the court in a rickshaw by Bobby's Bosom Buddies. King, for her part, was Cleopatra for the day, with young men dressed as slaves carrying her in.

"I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match. It would ruin the women's [tennis] tour and affect all women's self-esteem," she later said.

King, 29, defeated Riggs in front of a crowd of more than 30,000 people and a TV audience of 50 million people worldwide. The match is considered one of the most significant events in building recognition for women's sports.

A lifelong advocate for women's sports, King is the founder of the Women's Tennis Association and co-founder, with Donna de Varona, of the Women's Sports Foundation.

PHOTO: Chris Ernst
Yale Sports Publicity
Chris Ernst

In 1976, the 19 members of the Yale women's rowing team were tired of having to wait for the bus in the middle of winter, or for the men's locker room to clear. The men had warm showers in their locker room, and once they cleared out the women were allowed to enter and … well, you get the idea.

So one day in March the crew, led by Chris Ernst, paraded into the women's athletic director's office. They stripped down, baring "Title IX" written in bold magic marker across their bare breasts and backs. "These are bodies Yale is exploiting," Ernst read from a statement.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Yale '66, called their act "nothing short of spectacular," going so far as to compare Ernst with civil rights activist Rosa Parks. A New York Times stringer and photographer accompanied them, and Ernst's speech worked. Showers, with warm water, were quickly installed in the women's locker room. Ernst went on to compete with the U.S. women's rowing team at the 1976 Olympics, the first year women's rowing was introduced. She now owns a plumbing business.

PHOTO: Head coach Pat Summitt of the Tennessee Volunteers watches from the bench during the State Farm Womens Tip-Off Classic against the Purdue Boilermakers at the Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images
Pat Summitt

In 1974, at age 22, Summitt, a graduate student at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, became the head coach of the university's women's basketball team after the previous coach suddenly quit.

"I think there was a $10,000 budget for five women's sports," said Summitt, who made $250 a month and washed the team uniforms herself. "We traveled in vans and sold donuts to buy uniforms."

"One time, for a road game, we actually slept in the other team's gym the night before. We had mats, we had our little sleeping bags," she told Time magazine in 2009. "When I was a player at the University of Tennessee-Martin, we played at Tennessee Tech for three straight games, and we didn't wash our uniforms. We only had one set. We played because we loved the game. We didn't think anything about it."

In 2005, Summitt and her Lady Vols broke North Carolina coach Dean Smith's record of 879 wins. With 880 wins, she became the NCAA's all-time winningest coach. Male or female.

But her greatest challenge -- and those who know her are counting on her greatest victory -- may be ahead. Last summer she announced she'd been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, or Alzheimer's, and stepped down from active coaching at the end of the 2011-2012 season. She started a research, education and support foundation -- and announced there would be "not pity party."

PHOTO: Sheryl Swoopes #7 of the USA moves the ball against Spain in the women's basketball preliminary game on Aug. 20, 2004 during the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Nick Laham/Getty Images
Sheryl Swoopes

Swoopes is known to some as the "female Michael Jordan." A native of Lubbock, Texas, she set more than 10 school records at Texas Tech with the Lady Raiders, and in 1993, she led her team to victory with 47 points in the final game of the NCAA Final Four Championship. She was named Most Valuable Player. Her jersey was retired the following year; she was one of only three Lady Raiders to be so honored.

One of the major milestones in women's sports was when Swoopes was signed as the first player in the WNBA. Swoopes has won three Olympic gold medals and is a three-time WNBA MVP. The mother of Jordan Eric, born in 1997, Swoopes was the first woman to have her own shoe marketed by Nike, the Air Swoopes.

PHOTO: Roderick Jackson
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
Roderick Jackson

Maybe it was the day that Jackson, a high school basketball coach in Birmingham, Ala., had to break into the school's ice machine to treat an injured player. Maybe it was the fact that the girls were not allowed to use the brand-new gym the boys used; instead they practiced in the old gym with no heat and bent hoops. Then there was the matter of boys traveling to games on buses, while the girls had to scramble to find their own rides. The girls were also denied funding that was donated to the school's athletic department.

So he fought for his team, making complaints to school officials, and for that, Jackson lost his job.

He sued under Title IX and his case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 2005, the court ruled in favor of Jackson, saying that school officials could not retaliate against those who make sex discrimination complaints. Title IX, the court said, did not only cover those who are discriminated against based on sex, but also third parties who come forward on their behalf.

Although the Supreme Court did not guarantee Jackson would get his job back, Jackson did settle with the Board of Education and was reinstated as the head of the girl's basketball program at Jackson-Olin High School.

PHOTO: Abby Wambach of USAis seen during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2011 Group C match between USA and Colombia at Rhein-Neckar-Arena on July 2, 2011 in Sinsheim, Germany.
Joern Pollex/Getty Images
Abby Wambach

Wambach was the undisputed star of soccer's 2011 FIFA World Cup in Germany. Her header goal against Brazil after the 120th minute, during stop time, is the latest-scored goal of all time, in men's or women's soccer. Her emphatic drive drew in viewers worldwide. The U.S.-Japan match attracted 13.5 million Americans, surpassing those who watched any of the U.S. men's matches in 2010.

Although the U.S. women failed to grab World Cup gold, Wambach brought national attention to soccer, which, even though girls and moms enthusiastically embrace it across the country, is relatively unwatched by U.S. fans.

But no worries: Wambach will get the chance to show off her skills again at the upcoming London Olympic Games in July.

"My advice to any newcomer is just to be patient," she writes on her website, "and to work as hard as you can, because if you work as hard as you can you won't be able to look back with regrets. That's how the women on this national team got here."

PHOTO: Natalie Coughlin of the United States reacts after winning the bronze medal in the Women's 100m Backstroke Final during Day Eleven of the 14th FINA World Championships at the Oriental Sports Center on July 26, 2011 in Shanghai, China.
Adam Pretty/Getty Images
Natalie Coughlin

Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps, you may have to step aside.

Like Donna de Varona, Coughlin started swimming at a local YMCA in California. But, perhaps in a sign of how things had changed between the early 1960s and the 1980s, she was only 10 months old when she first hit the water.

Today she holds the record as the first woman in history to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 100 meter backstroke. She has 11 Olympic medals -- and has won a medal in every Olympic event she's ever entered.

With the 2012 London Olympics fast approaching, Coughlin could become the most decorated American female swimmer in history. She needs two more to beat fellow American swimmer Jenny Thompson's total of 12.

PHOTO: The next generation of young girls under Title IX.
Getty Images
The Next Generation

The next generation of girl athletes

The benefits of Title IX have been measured in countless studies: If a girl is an athlete in high school, she's 41 percent more likely to graduate college within six years, compared with women who were not active in sports. Girls who participate in sports report being more content with their lives. Teenage athletes are less likely to use drugs or to become pregnant.

Yet women still have a way to go: While 40 percent of boys engage in physical activity six or seven days a week, only 26 percent of girls do. In college, during the 2004-2005 school year, women made up 55.8 percent of undergraduate student bodies but that number dropped to 41.7 percent of college athletes. Women's coaches still make a fraction of what their male counterparts do.

But no one would dispute that times have changed, for the good. Ask Donna de Varona: She served as chairman of the 1999 Women's World Cup Soccer Tournament Organizing Committee.

Everyone told her they couldn't fill the Rose Bowl in California, with its capacity of 90,000. But fill it they did, and when Brandi Chastain scored the winning goal, the stadium erupted. De Varona had brought her son, John David, who turned to her, and said, "Mom, do you think they'll ever do that for young guys?"

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