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Sports

Title IX revolutionized female athletics but advocates say it's been a constant fight

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Title IX turns 50 today. Title IX is the name for the landmark law that banned discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. There's no mention of athletics in Title IX, but it has been linked most closely to sports giving girls and young women competitive opportunities they rarely had before. NPR's Tom Goldman reports it's been a fight every step of the way.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: At its core, Title IX turned the female sporting experience from no to yes. And Mariah Burton Nelson lived both.

MARIAH BURTON NELSON: I was not allowed to play Little League. My brother did.

GOLDMAN: It was the early 1960s, long before Burton Nelson played professional basketball and wrote award-winning books about women in sports. Back then, she was a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, playing every sport in her neighborhood with her older brother, until she heard that first no. But she was lucky. Her mom was athletic but didn't have competitive opportunities herself. She challenged young Mariah to swimming races and never let her win.

NELSON: She showed me that competition is fun and female.

GOLDMAN: And at her brother's organized baseball games, a budding activism emerged.

NELSON: I wouldn't sit there and watch. I wandered off to the playground nearby. So I was playing, which was on the playground by myself instead of on the field. But I was refusing to be a spectator.

GOLDMAN: By June 23, 1972, Burton Nelson was a very good teenage basketball player who had no idea that on that day, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX. Burton Nelson's right to fully realize her athletic self now was law. But it was slow taking off. Regulations requiring Title IX compliance didn't come out until 1975. Burton Nelson didn't know about the law until 1974, when she started college at Stanford.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A top 12 battle at Maples Pavilion won dominantly by No. 11 Stanford.

GOLDMAN: Back then, Maples Pavilion was home only to the Stanford men's basketball team. Burton Nelson says her team was relegated to the tiny women's gym and that they didn't have uniforms or scholarships. But the women now had Title IX, which led Burton Nelson and a couple of teammates to the athletic director's office for what she laughingly calls a series of sit-ins.

NELSON: Just three of us sitting there but refusing to go away when his secretary said, no, he's too busy, or you don't have an appointment, or he doesn't want to see you, or you were already here yesterday. We made it known that we wanted action, and we had the law on our side.

GOLDMAN: Theirs was one of many battles waged and won as Title IX took hold. Its impact now is evident in numbers. Pre-Title IX, fewer than 300,000 girls played high school sports. Now it's more than 10 times that - around 3.5 million. And it's evident in scenes around the country.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Dixie, let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You got it, Dixie.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Here we go, Dixie.

GOLDMAN: On a recent afternoon in Gaston, Ore., Dixie Swinford stood on a baseball field at home plate with her bat at the ready. Swinford is an 11-year-old girl who doesn't wander off to a playground while the boys play. She plays with them - tackle football, too. Before the game, I asked her about Title IX - she hadn't heard of it - and about the world before, when girls couldn't play because they were girls.

What do you think of that?

DIXIE SWINFORD: That's just dumb.

GOLDMAN: Swinford can't imagine a life without sports.

DIXIE: That would be really boring.

GOLDMAN: Mariah Burton Nelson doesn't know Dixie Swinford, but she recognizes that same attitude in so many of today's young female athletes.

NELSON: I love the fact that they're entitled. They feel entitled to play sport. It would not occur to them that they can't. They don't know about Title IX. I would like them to know their history, but the fact that they don't is kind of cool, too, because they're taking it for granted.

GOLDMAN: Which seems ironic because getting to today, Title IX advocates like Neena Chaudhry took nothing for granted.

NEENA CHAUDHRY: I think it's taken work the entire way to get girls and women the opportunities that the law promises.

GOLDMAN: Chaudhry is general counsel at the National Women's Law Center. She's done a lot of that work over the years. She notes there have been many mileposts along an arduous journey since 1972. In the 1980s, a Supreme Court ruling limited Title IX before Congress restored the law's full athletic protections. In the early '90s, a lawsuit by Brown University female athletes against the school set a precedent for how schools manage athletic opportunities. And in 1993, Howard University basketball coach Sanya Tyler sued her school, claiming discrimination against the women's program, including her lower pay than the men's coach. She won a jury award and talked about her Title IX case in a 2011 speech.

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SANYA TYLER: But I did something most people never do when you sue an institution at large and win. I stayed. I stayed for one reason and one reason only. I had done nothing that I needed to leave for.

GOLDMAN: For all those who've reveled in how Title IX has righted wrongs, there have been others who've railed against it, too.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The university cut the wrestling program over Title IX.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: JMU no longer has a swim team. It's one of 10 teams the school is cutting.

GOLDMAN: Critics note how Title IX forced schools to add women's programs and then cut men's sports to balance participation numbers. Tim McNeill is the former head coach of men's gymnastics at Cal Berkeley.

TIM MCNEILL: It tries to create equal opportunities for men and women. What it ends up doing is lessening the opportunities for men.

GOLDMAN: But Neena Chaudhry worries the criticism and ongoing challenges to Title IX are based, in part, on enduring stereotypes.

CHAUDHRY: Arguments that we continually hear and see in court briefings that women and girls are not as interested in sports - I think it shows that those stereotypes run deep.

GOLDMAN: Title IX at 50 still divides and doesn't deliver wholly on its promises. Diversity specialist Ashland Johnson says despite the surge of sports opportunities, some groups lag behind.

ASHLAND JOHNSON: Girls of color receive fewer opportunities than both white girls and boys of color when it comes to playing athletics. And LGBTQ youth are participating in sports at alarmingly low rates.

GOLDMAN: While discrimination is a factor, Johnson, who contributed to a major report on Title IX this month, says school administrators still don't often know what Title IX actually requires and what gender equity looks like and how school resources should be distributed. So there's work ahead.

But back at that baseball field in Oregon - a reminder of the work that's been done. After an inning in which Dixie Swinford scores a run, a parent shouts encouragement.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Let's go, boy and girl.

GOLDMAN: Let's go, boys and girl. A quick catch, but a sign, too, that 50 years after Title IX was born, the sports landscape is not just about the boys, forever more.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.