It’s hard to believe how much our society has changed in 40 years! It’s harder to believe some of the things that were condoned back then and the justification given for those policies. 1972 was the year Title IX was passed by Congress. It reads: “No person in the US shall on the basis of sex be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal assistance.” This federal law was the first to prohibit sex discrimination in educational institutions. Most of us are familiar with the effects of Title IX on high school and collegiate athletics. Surprisingly, the law was written with athletic issues secondary to the issue of educational access. It’s interesting and worthwhile to review how the law came about.
The father of Title IX legislation was Birch Bayh, the colorful hog farmer and former senator from Indiana. Senator Bayh was moved to action by the story of Marvella Hern, the daughter of an Oklahoma wheat farmer. Marvella was denied admission to the University of Virginia in 1951 despite being her class president, a straight-A student, and a national speech champion. Most disturbing was the rejection letter that Marvella received, which read: “Women need not apply.”1 Senator Bayh got to know that talented young lady well because he married her and subsequently told that story on multiple occasions.
With the support of Hawaii’s Patsy Mink and Oregon’s Edith Green in the House of Representatives, Title IX was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on June 23, 1972. Despite the law’s enactment, it took nearly 3 years to write the enforcement regulations, which were finally signed by President Gerald R. Ford in 1975. The fact that President Ford was the one to sign the regulations is a story in itself. President Ford played football at the University of Michigan and deeply cherished the game and his own career on the gridiron. Prior to signing the regulations into law, President Ford was lobbied very hard by then-NCAA president Walter Byers, along with legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and Notre Dame athletic director Ed “Moose” Kraus. They all claimed that Title IX would destroy college football.1 President Ford did not buy their arguments and wisely signed the regulations into law. Evidence that when faced by the likes of Alabama or Notre Dame, Wolverines usually get it right!
The effects of Title IX on higher education have been mind-boggling. In 1972, only 10% of the students in veterinary medicine were women; today it is 80%.1 In medicine, only 9% of medical degrees went to women back then, but by 1994, it rose to 37%,3 and more today. In law, the percentage of female degree recipients rose from 7% in 1972 to 43% in 1994. It’s interesting how a poorly written rejection college letter to Marvella Hern stirred enough emotion to move a society to correct gender discrimination.
From a personal point of view, I remember those early 1970s as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and the mounting controversy caused by Title IX. The “gloom and doom” that was predicted for the men’s athletic programs was truly threatening as the storm clouds gathered. Michigan was actually right at the heart of the controversy. Marissa Pollick was an outstanding teenage tennis player, but a state law in Michigan barred her from participating in high school varsity sports. She challenged the law in court and, thankfully, the law was overturned.2 Marissa was one of the first female athletes to receive a University of Michigan athletic scholarship. Marissa fought hard for many things in the athletic department at Michigan, but things did not come easy, as the administration struggled with the law and its implementation. I still remember the controversy about giving her a block “M” letter jacket after she won her first varsity letter. There was a lot of animosity on campus as policies began to change. Marissa persisted through her undergraduate studies and law school at Michigan. To her great credit, she has continued the fight to this day as she works on legal enforcement of Title IX.2
Truthfully, the opportunities for women have vastly improved in society and in sports, but obviously, controversies and challenges remain. On the positive side, women’s participation in organized sports on the high school and collegiate levels has skyrocketed despite the early resistance. Before Title IX, 1 in 27 high school girls played organized sports; today it is close to 2 in 5.1 In college, women’s participation in sports has risen more than 600% since Title IX became law, from less than 30 000 to more than 186 000 women athletes but still less than the 250 000 male participants.1
Along with the increased participation has come an increase in athletic injuries. Women have proven to be more prone to injury than men in several sports, especially at the knee with the anterior cruciate ligament dilemma. These trends probably could have been anticipated, and, yes, much more needs to be done, especially in the high-risk sports for women, like soccer and basketball.
Unfortunately, it’s taken far too long to fully implement and, embarrassingly, some places, like my own state of Michigan, continue to learn the hard way. A decade-long fight by the Michigan High School Athletic Association finally ended in 2009 with a $6-million legal bill. The battle was fought over the balance between the scheduling of boys’ and girls’ sports seasons.
Many places find it hard to change policy. Some of those stories are funny and some are sad. It’s sad to think how archaic things were just 40 years ago. I hope we start to learn the lessons of Title IX faster.