Law That Leveled Playing Fields Turns 30

It is just one sentence long, but Title IX of the Education Act of 1972 packed a wallop.

The legislation, which reaches its 30th anniversary today, made it suddenly illegal for any federally funded school to spend more on sports for boys than sports for girls.

"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance," the legislation said. Though its passage outlawed sex discrimination in education overall, it is mostly associated with athletics.

It was the first moment of a paradigm shift in sports, and it ended up being much more. Proponents of Title IX have called it is an empowering, positive step that gets young women in the game in high school and college athletics.

Critics have said the legislation hurts men's teams, arguing that the funding for what they believe is a "quota" of female athletes comes at the expense of male athletics.

Title IX Babies in Spotlight

Still, there is no disputing that the legislation has led to a surge in female athletics. When Title IX was born, fewer than 300,000 girls participated in high school sports. Now, 2.7 million high school girls lace up their sneakers for a variety of organized sports.

The number of female varsity athletes has shot up some 41 percent since then, with soccer seeing the biggest increase for both sexes.

Nothing epitomizes the arrival of Title IX's victory more than the 1999 Women's World Cup final, the year a women's sports championship galvanized the nation. The winning American team was composed entirely of Title IX babies, including soccer star Mia Hamm.

But professional sports are not the only playing field that Title IX has altered.

From Fields to Boardrooms

Ruth Ann Marshall, now the president of MasterCard for North America, remembers pre-Title IX days at her high school, when she was sidelined simply for being a girl.

"I would practice with the boys' tennis team, but when it came to a playing a match I had to sit on the sidelines even though I was a capable player," Marshall said. "But when I got to college, I was able to play competitively on the tennis team and on the basketball team because of Title IX."

According to recent surveys, 81 percent of female executives played organized sports, compared to 61 percent of women in the general population.

"In every game there is a way to win. There is a way to score. In everything you do through out that sport is to get you to the end goal to win," Marshall said. "And in business, it's the same way."

Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, said the law has helped teach girls lessons that are particular to good sportsmanship.

"Sports, especially team sports, have taught many lessons to young boys for many years, and now girls are learning them too," Lopiano said. "If you lose it's OK, because you can play the next time around, and in the process, winning or losing, it teaches you to separate your performance from your self-worth."

Zigging and Zagging Through Life

Another successful female business leader agreed.

"In my first race I fell down. You get up and you do it again," said Betsy Bernard, president and CEO of AT&T Consumer. "And that has propelled me through a ski career as well as a corporate career. In corporate life now, we refer to that as zigging and zagging."

The lessons of Title IX have reached beyond sports, into boardrooms, even onto Wall Street.

It seems women, once content in low-risk savings accounts, have learned to take bigger risks. Women and Co., a financial services provider, says that investment clubs for women have increased by an astounding 500 percent since 1960.

Title IX gave girls a chance to play, and the girls took it from there. Now, girls feel entitled to it, and entitled to the right to compete and take risks.

They swing. They hit or they miss. They win or they lose. But no matter what, since 1972, girls have learned to stay in the game.