Happy anniversary, Title IX ... but we've got a lot more to do

Updated: June 22, 2007, 12:17 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Title IX reads quickly, just 37 words. Explaining it, though, has always taken a lot more words than that. I've written many stories about Title IX, and none of them has ever been short.

Anne Donovan
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty ImagesTitle IX came along in time for Anne Donovan, but her four older sisters didn't reap the legislation's benefits.
Each time, I end up referencing at least some of these things: the three-prong test, the Office of Civil Rights, the '84 Supreme Court decision, the Civil Rights Restoration Act, the Brown decision, punitive damages, the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act, the Commission on Opportunity in Athletics and e-mail surveys. It gets pretty complicated.

But as the landmark legislation -- a section of the Educational Amendments of 1972 -- turns 35 years old on Saturday, it occurred to me to think back to something much simpler. The time I first "learned" of Title IX -- even though, then, I had no idea that was essentially what I was hearing about.

In 1974, a teacher from my local high school and his wife visited our church. After the sermon, I was running around maniacally like all the other kids freed from sitting miserably still for an hour. Somehow, while weaving through the adults gabbing outside in the sunshine, I heard that this teacher was starting a girls' basketball team at the high school that fall.

Why would this moment have registered enough that I would remember it even after a week, let alone three decades later? I was only 9, when high school kids still seemed very adult and not something I'd ever actually be.

But it's funny how you look back on your life and see that your brain was always wired a certain way. Long before you recognize you are doing it, you catalog "landmarks" for things that will remain important to you.

And when our high school's first star girls' basketball player -- Theresa Kadlec -- emerged, her name (which I obviously never forgot) and picture began to appear in the local newspaper regularly. Which I thought was just awesome.

Now I know that Title IX contributed to all of that. What was going on in my little corner of Eastern Missouri was happening at high schools and colleges all across the country.

Congresswomen Patsy Takemoto Mink of Hawaii and Edith Green of Oregon had been Title IX's sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives. Indiana's Birch Bayh was the legislation's chief advocate in the Senate. It was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, and it's very fair to say he did not in any way anticipate what it meant.

The NCAA -- in one of the more embarrassing mistakes in its history -- actually lobbied against Title IX, to no avail. It took a few years for schools everywhere to realize it really was law, and changes needed to be made.

There were those relatively few educational institutions that had provided athletic opportunities for girls and women even in the "Backlash Dark Ages" period of the 1950s and 1960s. But most places had little or nothing, and had to build basically from scratch. By 1974, even the most reluctant athletic officials knew it had to be done.

But it was imperative that there be people who really wanted to do it.

***** ***** *****

I'll flash forward a decade to 1984. It was January, and I was about to conduct my very first interview with a coach for a newspaper story and was quite nervous. But, hey, all my life I'd watched coaches being interviewed on TV and read their quotes in stories. I had a pretty good idea what to expect.

I think most of the 'debate' on Title IX is just missing the point. It doesn't matter where the money comes from. If you're providing experiences, you can't provide them more or differently for one gender than the other. Everybody counts. End of discussion.
Missouri track coach Rick McGuire
Or so I thought.

Rick McGuire was in his first year as women's track coach at Missouri. I'd just talked to one of his top athletes, a triple jumper named Kellee Eubanks, then went to get what I assumed would be a brief, "She did good," comment from McGuire.

I asked something like, "Were you satisfied with her performance?" and McGuire just smiled, and paused, and sort of looked me up and down. He was gathering his thoughts, trying to figure out where to start with my education.

I was just about to blurt out, "Look, I love track! I watch it all the time! I was one of those nerds who volunteered to measure and rake at the long jump pit for every meet in high school! So if that was a dumb question, it's only because I'm just starting this reporting thing!"

But McGuire kept smiling and then started to explain his philosophy on what really matters in terms of evaluating athletes. A Ph.D. who founded USA Track and Field's sports psychology program, McGuire is an absolute believer in positive motivation. In empowering athletes, not breaking them down. In getting them to understand if they don't enjoy what they're doing, they are missing the point.

As I began to try to soak this up and grasp it all, I got an inkling of something else that would prove true about McGuire: He was gender-blind.

By that I mean, to him, there was no distinction between male athletes and female athletes. Everyone deserved the same respect, the same coaching, the same enthusiasm, the same opportunities.

Eventually, he would take over the men's program at Mizzou, too, and this past track season was his 24th at the school. Over the years, we've talked about track and field's significance in helping gender relations in sports. It's one of the few sports for which males and females commonly practice at the same time and place, travel to competitions together and often seem to have a true camaraderie and mutual respect. McGuire once joked with me that there's a lot to be said for the unifying factor of barfing in the same trash can after a hard workout.

On a rainy afternoon this May, we were out at the Mizzou track, and I was asking him about his career. I knew that when he got his first high school teaching job in 1969, he had started a cross country team for girls as well as boys.

This was a few years before Title IX, when he was getting paid next to nothing and having to conduct indoor track practices in school hallways.

"Why were you like that back then?" I asked him. "What made you see the girls as exactly the same as the boys -- especially when so many coaches of that time would have been outright hostile to girls?"

McGuire began his answer by talking about his family.

"My sister didn't get to do lots of things," he remembered. "I'd gotten all this great stuff in my life from participating in sports. I'd had dreams from the time I was little, and people had taken interest in me and provided for me through sports.

"I always knew it had contributed an extraordinary amount to my life. And I thought, 'Why would this be considered good for boys and not for girls? Why would people even debate that? Why did my sister not get to have the same experiences that I did?' There's no answer to that question other than, 'That's wrong. Change it.'

"Then later, my wife and I had our first baby, and it was a girl. And that's overwhelming. It's an entirely new experience with love. I'm not saying my daughter is a miracle. I'm saying everybody's is."

McGuire didn't need Title IX to shape his attitude, but he knows how much girls' and women's athletics needed that legislation to become what they are today.

"I think most of the 'debate' on Title IX is just missing the point," he said. "It doesn't matter where the money comes from. If you're providing experiences, you can't provide them more or differently for one gender than the other. Everybody counts. End of discussion."

***** ***** *****

Except, of course, we know the discussion hasn't ended.

  Young or old, player or coach or fan or whatever -- if you have any interest or connection to girls' and women's athletics, you should consider it mandatory to learn the history and be informed. 
In 2002, there was an odd juxtaposition: Title IX was celebrating its 30th birthday the same time former education secretary Rod Paige had convened a committee supposedly to study the legislation's impact.

In fact, Paige's agenda was transparent if you understand the history of Title IX's enforcement. The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights was put in charge of overseeing Title IX in the 1970s -- resulting in the famous three-prong test for colleges in 1979 -- but it's the court system that has provided the only "hammer" in terms of enforcement.

The "desired outcome" by Paige appeared to be for the committee to essentially rubber-stamp subtle but critical changes in how Title IX would be interpreted. That in turn could have impacted how the courts might decide in any future Title IX cases, in effect weakening the hammer.

Watchdog groups such as the National Women's Law Center, dissenting committee members such as Donna de Varona and Julie Foudy, and grassroots activism thwarted what many labeled an end-around attack on Title IX. In 2003, it was announced there would be no changes in interpretation.

Then those determined to weaken the mortar of Title IX waited a couple of years before trying something even sneakier. In 2005, the Department of Education issued the "Additional Clarification," with no public comment. It allows schools to show compliance with Title IX by using e-mail surveys of female students to supposedly gauge interest in athletics.

The NCAA, in no uncertain terms, has urged its member schools to ignore the clarification and has called for it to be rescinded. To its credit, the NCAA has come a million miles from its initial reaction to Title IX.

The battles will continue. Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, testified just Tuesday before a House subcommittee.

"On this anniversary, there is much to celebrate; women have made significant progress in education in the last three and one-half decades," she told the subcommittee. "But the job is not yet finished, and the playing field is not yet level. Much remains to be done to ensure that women have truly equal access and opportunities in all areas of education."

Title IX is, of course, about all of education, not just athletics. So I urge anyone with an interest in athletics or education to go to the NWLC's web site -- http://www.nwlc.org -- and read all of what Greenberger had to say, plus all the other information available there.

Earlier this year, I asked Seattle Storm coach Anne Donovan about Title IX's anniversary. A three-time Olympian who played collegiately at Old Dominion, Donovan has made her professional livelihood from basketball, first playing and then coaching the sport.

"For me, there was a very clear example," Donovan said of Title IX's impact. "I was the youngest of the five girls in my family, and my older sisters were all good basketball players. But I was the only one who benefited from it.

"It is our responsibility to continue to talk about Title IX, and make sure our younger players are aware of it."

She's right. And young or old, player or coach or fan or whatever -- if you have any interest or connection to girls' and women's athletics, you should consider it mandatory to learn the history and be informed.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.