How Title IX Sneakily Revolutionized Women's Sports

Supporters of the groundbreaking legislation did all they could to conceal its potential impact.

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When Title IX was signed into law 40 years ago this weekend, most people had no idea what an impact it would have on women's sports in America. And that's exactly what the architects of the bill wanted. That is the remarkable story told in a new documentary, Sporting Chance, which will air Saturday on ESPN2: In order to make Title IX the law of the land, its supporters had to keep the public ignorant of its potential for lasting social change.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a 36-word clause largely overlooked by the very lawmakers who passed the bill, requires equal access for women in all facets of education, most notably athletics. The section reads:

"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Simply put, the law means that public schools and universities must offer equal academic and athletic opportunities to men and women. To the generation coming of age today, this sounds about as radical as "equal rights for gay and lesbian people" and "providing men and women with easy access to contraceptives." But to a host of former lawmakers interviewed in the documentary, it was a seemingly impossible goal that took determination and a healthy dose of cunning by former Oregon congresswoman Edith Green.

As told through compelling first-person narratives in Sporting Chance, Green and Indiana senator Birch Bayh first floated the idea of Title IX in congressional hearings on equal rights for women in 1970. The measure was eventually added to the 1972 education reform bill, but it was generally thought to affect hiring and employment practices at federally funded schools.

That was how Green wanted it. As the bill made its way through Congress and landed on Richard Nixon's desk, the 10-term congresswoman muzzled most public support for the bill out of fear that its true scope would be publicized.

Bernice Sandler, who helped draft Title IX with Green and Bayh, recalled in the film how Green was aghast when Sandler and others said they planned to lobby for the bill.

She said: "I don't want you to lobby. Because if you lobby, people will ask questions about this bill, and they will find out what it would really do." ... And she was absolutely right. It was quite a big break that no one was watching.

The full impact of Title IX did not become clear until 1975, when the government published final rules that gave colleges and universities three years to comply with the gender equality provision of the act. But its impact is clear today. Fewer than 300,000 girls played high school sports in 1974—today, the ranks have swelled to more than 3.1 million.

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Jake Simpson is a New York-based writer.

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