My aging joints creaked a little more this weekend as I realized I’m old enough to remember the days before Title IX when a “level playing field” for girls’ sports meant putting our foot against the wall to be out-of-bounds in basketball. 40 years ago this week, the enactment of Title IX changed everything for girls and women in education — the law required equal opportunity in all parts of education, not just in sports. But the biggest and most enduring changes came on the playing fields.
I marvel at Trinity athletes today,and even feel a small pang of envy when I recall the primitive conditions that existed when I learned to play basketball and field hockey. We actually had a girls’ basketball team (CYO — Catholic Youth Organization) in my parish grade school at St. Colman’s in Ardmore, PA. We learned to play ball in the church basement where a modest gym with a low ceiling served as our arena. This gym is now immortalized in the movie “Mighty Macs” about the triumphant women’s basketball team at Immaculata University (then a college) in the Philadelphia suburbs.
As that movie depicts so movingly, girls didn’t have much to play with back then (the dark ages, circa 1969!). We wore jumpers and bloomers and had to put our foot against the wall to be out of bounds. When I had my first knee injury in 8th grade playing on the linoleum floor gym of some other local parish school, we certainly didn’t have trainers, ice or medical treatment. I limped around with an ace bandage for the next 50 years.
I was well prepared for such a sporting life when I came to Trinity in the fall of 1970 — our basketball team had a similar “gym” underneath Notre Dame Chapel, with an even-lower ceiling and hard concrete floor. I can still hear Miss Durbin, Trinity’s legendary athletic director and coach, hollering “Aim for the third tile!” as a way to execute perfect foul shots.
In those days, back before Title IX, Trinity actually played basketball against the women’s team at the University of Maryland and other big universities. Their playing conditions were no better than ours — hence, we had a “level playing field” among women’s sports. I remember going out to College Park where the women played, not in the big men’s arena at Cole Field House, but in a small Quonset hut on the edge of campus where the playing floor was so small, like most gyms where women were ‘allowed’ to play, that we had to put our foot against the wall to be out-of-bounds.
After Title IX in 1972, the women at Maryland and the other big coed universities got to move to the big field houses and play real ball. Women’s colleges lagged for a long time because we did not have men’s sports or spending as the yardstick for equity. We finally got smart about this late in the game when we realized that a “level playing field” among women’s sports today means excellence in coaching, competition and facilities. The Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports is part of Title IX’s legacy to the current and future generations.
In spite of the many gains that Title IX made possible for women in sports — we will soon see those gains displayed again beautifully at the 2012 London Olympics — too many girls still lack equal opportunity. I think, in particular, of the girls in the D.C. Public Schools who continue to lack broad access to sports that will earn them college scholarships, e.g., soccer, lacrosse, volleyball, tennis and other sports. Sure, the schools are making progress with facilities and coaches, but the results are still very uneven. Football remains king, and the girls do not have nearly enough broad access to field sports to teach them the skills and competitive abilities that would make them candidates for college scholarships in athletics.
I think of one of my professional friends, someone with the ability to pay tuition without concern, who regaled me with tales of how lacrosse coaches from many major universities recruited her daughter and the full tuition scholarships they dangled before this player from an elite private school. I think of my students at Trinity who have no such opportunities, who have never seen a lacrosse game or had an invitation to play — and, hence, no scholarship opportunities at DI or DII universities. Of course, I’m happy they’re at Trinity — but sad when I realize that Title IX’s triumphs have not been equal for all women.
Title IX made progress for women’s advancement not only in sports but throughout education. But in this moment of celebration, let’s not forget our sisters who remain on the sidelines. Until urban public education fully embraces the mandate of Title IX not just grudgingly, but enthusiastically, the law’s potential will remain unfulfilled.