Commentary

Ted Kennedy's sports legacy: Title IX

Originally Published: August 26, 2009
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

No matter which side of the aisle fans come down on in the Title IX issue, no one can debate that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy had a huge impact on women's athletics and the overall sports scene in this country.

Kennedy, who passed away late Tuesday night after a yearlong bout with brain cancer, is remembered as a key supporter of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which was designed in part to balance the amount of money spent on men's and women's sports. Even more significantly from his leadership role in the Senate, Kennedy led the fight throughout the years against efforts to overturn or water down the legislation.

Sen. Ted Kennedy: 1932-2009

For complete coverage of the life, times and legacy of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, visit ABC News.

"Over the course of time, he played the leading role in keeping Title IX strong through the Senate, using his stature and his savvy to ensure that it remained strong protection for women in athletics," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center. "He certainly was a supporter when it was passed in 1972. And he was also a reliable supporter when attacks on Title IX began shortly after its passage and through to the present day. In the ensuing years, it became an issue of different sorts of skirmishes. Efforts to amend the law. Efforts to deal with funding the Office of Civil Rights and to limit its enforcement. And oversight kinds of issues.

"As his leadership in the Senate grew, his responsibility for ensuring that Title IX remained strong and enforced grew. He became the chief force behind the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, which virtually re-enacted Title IX after a devastating, narrow Supreme Court decision, which among other things removed Title IX coverage from all intercollegiate athletics in this country."

Kennedy was part of a group that included Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., and Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii, who advocated early for Title IX, and his role expanded later as the legislation's great protector. Greenberger contends that Title IX might not have survived without Kennedy's guardianship, and thus the sports world as it is today might be vastly different.

The increased opportunities for female athletes can be witnessed in college and high school athletics programs, and in turn have helped spawn professional leagues and greater participation and success at the Olympic level.

Kennedy, who played football at Harvard and enjoyed sailing on the waters off Cape Cod, reportedly helped write more than 300 pieces of legislation that became law. He continued to support women's athletics throughout his career and in recent years had appeared at "Save Title IX" events.

[+] EnlargeTed Kennedy
AP Photo/William B. PlowmanThe late Sen Ted Kennedy's support of Title IX legislation left a lasting impact on sports at the high school and collegiate levels.

"I just think that Ted Kennedy cared deeply about equality for everyone and recognized that equality wasn't just about employment and wasn't just about education," said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sports at the University of Minnesota. "It was in every walk of life. And that females should have as much right to participate and have the same kind of opportunities as men in sports. … There have always been attempts made to either change the law or change the OCR [Office of Civil Rights] guidelines, in terms of compliance.

"And he always argued for protecting Title IX. And again, making sure that young girls and women had equal opportunities on the sports field. The key thing about him is he got it. He understood that the world of sports is not just about who wins and loses, but the kinds of experiences that young girls had been denied for centuries."

Greenberger, who worked closely with Kennedy on Title IX issues, said he was particularly influential in overturning the Supreme Court's Grove City College case, which found in 1984 that Title IX applied to a private college's financial aid department, not the school as a whole. Enforcement of the act in collegiate athletics ground to a halt after the controversial decision.

"I don't know honestly if we would have gotten the Civil Rights Restoration Act passed without him," Greenberger said. "And if we hadn't, we wouldn't have a Title IX to be arguing over now.

"There are many stories I remember fondly of his negotiating to get the Civil Rights Restoration Act passed. And during that period, President [Ronald] Reagan had been vetoing it. So there was a need to get a veto-proof margin in both the House and the Senate.

"I remember negotiations both with Sen. [Robert] Dole, who was the majority leader and who ended up supporting the Civil Rights Restoration Act, and Sen. [Orrin] Hatch. And there were some negotiations with advocates, including myself, with Sen. Kennedy and Sen. Hatch in the Capitol until 2 and 3 in the morning to work out the language to get that act passed. It took four years to pass it, and it was a priority on his part to ensure it was enacted. Without his leadership we would not have been able to amass that veto-proof margin."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.