50 Years of Letting Us Play, Too

February 2 brought about another National Women and Girls in Sports Day. The date is observed in honor of women and their consistent efforts to diminish and eliminate gender inequalities in sports. It serves as a day to celebrate the success that women experience in sports year-round. It also serves as a reminder of all the hurdles that were overcome in order for women and girls to have the opportunities to play and engage in sports throughout the United States. Thanks to Title IX, a law passed on June 6, 1972, the sports industry was forever changed for women and girls in the U.S. This summer the 50th anniversary will pass, thanks to the efforts of Edith Green and Patsy Mink—and the relentless women and girls who fought for generations prior to Green putting the words of “sports equity” down on paper. Today, the sports industry has undergone radical change thanks to the demands and standards set forth by Mink’s and Green’s work. 

There are stories of women doing ridiculous things to bring attention to the ridiculous inequalities they faced. In 1976, Yale’s women’s crew team made headlines for standing naked in front of Yale administrator Joni Barrett in order to confront her with the bodies Yale allowed their athletic department to exploit. In 1973, Billie Jean King faced off with Bobby Riggs, the man thought to be the world’s best tennis player. She won and took home $100,000. The match remains titled, “Battle of the Sexes.” Today, schools continue to be investigated for Title IX violations. It remains, unfortunately, a modern problem. 

However, enormous change and enormous wins have come about in the 50 years since the law’s passing into legislation. An easy show of American women’s athletic prowess comes from the Olympics. In 2012, the United States sent more female athletes than male. In both the summer and winter Olympics, the women’s USA team has taken home more medals than the men’s team. Globally, they outshone every other country in medal count. The women of the United States have made sure to make up for the lost time they suffered at the hands of inequality. Another important sign for women’s sports was settled on February 22, 2022 when the U.S. women’s national team reached an agreement with the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay. The litigation took six years and ultimately paid the women $22 million in back pay with $2 million dollars being set aside for the women in the case to apply and then donate a maximum of $50,000 toward a charity of their choice. Those charities are likely to be centered around advancing young women in soccer. Additionally, the U.S. Soccer Federation agreed that they will pay the women’s team the same amount of money they pay the men’s team. 

For many female athletes, the long fight for equality is not lost on modernity. Female athletes today understand that it is the work of the women before them who allow them to play and perform at levels which were previously unavailable to them. Erin McClelland, an alumna of the Saint Louis University field hockey team and the current University of Virginia field hockey team manager said, “Sports have taught me to be confident in my own strength and ability, and how important it is to uplift and support those around you whenever you can.” The sports avenue has provided this outlet for many women. Women and girls who could not quite find their niche without sport have found solace in their ability to perform at the highest levels of sport. There is space for women here, too. It has taught women how to uplift one another and have courage in the person they are. The chance to be a teammate is the chance to create lifelong friends and experience a unique part of life. SLU field hockey alumna Julianne Sacco shared that, “Sport to me means many things. Being a part of sports has taught me life lessons.” Those life lessons were previously unavailable to girls and women. Many of those lessons can be directly translated into professional careers, which has given many a leg up in their lives. Learning things like efficient communication, leadership and dealing with adversity prepares young people for success. 

Demi Sahuleka, a current member of the SLU field hockey team, said, “It’s an escape but also my life. It’s literally a part of me.” This is an important dichotomy to acknowledge. Sports provide women an expressive and physical outlet. This can be a helpful asset for their mental health. The stability and success that a sport can provide is also an important asset that women can use to help combat other stressful points of life. Idalia Enos played basketball for SLU but was a standout soccer player throughout her high school career as well. She said, “It was a release for me, a release of all outside distractions or problems.” The chance to engage in sports was a chance to forget the outside world. No matter what was going on outside of practice, those hours within provide an escape. For an hour or more a day, women and girls can come together and enjoy something they love, with people they love, in an uplifting environment. Stepping back out after practice can be refreshing and provide clarity. After a hard workout, an individual can be prepared to take on the next part of their day with a new sense of readiness.

Ultimately, it provides women with something they can be proud of—they can be awarded their own medals on their own platforms. As Caroline Miller, a thrower on the SLU track and field team explains, “It means a moment of my day for myself and a moment away from the stressors of the day. It means doing something I love and doing something my family can be proud of me for.” Families are able to share in the success of their daughters, mothers and sisters. Sports have begun to run in the bloodline. 

For women like Karen Shriner who grew up in the early years of Title IX’s passage, sports represented “an opportunity and a chance to be committed to something.” In a very basic sense, the opportunity to create commitment and maintain that commitment was something that women had to fight for the right to have. Women and girls were not expected to agree to physical activity and then follow through, week after week after week. Alisa Zannetti, a mother of two daughters who are both involved in athletics said that the opportunity to play sports meant “equal importance.” For the first time, space was carved out for women to be engaged in athletics. It required individuals to pay attention. Today, it is the women who are in professional athletics, who play college sports, and have equal sport representation in high school, who profit off the constant pushing, asking and prodding that the generations before them did. 

Zoe Adkins was a field hockey player at Maine before she became a graduate assistant at Franklin Pierce University; eventually she would become the Ravens’ head coach. She is now the head coach of Saint Louis University field hockey. When asked what sport meant to her, she reflected and said, “It’s hard to put into words all that sport means to me. It’s been an avenue of opportunity that helped me obtain two degrees. It’s allowed me to pursue a career I am whole-heartedly passionate about. While also providing friendships and memories to last a lifetime. Lastly, one of the greatest lessons sport has taught me is that you’re capable of so much more than you set your mind to.” Prior to Title IX’s passage, college athletics were relatively unattainable for certain economic classes. Today, the competition of college athletics at all levels draws the best athletes both nationally and internationally. The benefit of the United States’ law has gone on to benefit countless international students, like Adkins who hails from Canada. Sport has opened countless avenues of sports for women that have altered their life paths for the better. 

The years are gone where Babe Didrikson burst onto the sports scene, scandalizing reporters with her mannerisms and impolite quips. But the woman who scandalized the early 1900s sports industry laid a path for others to follow. Slowly, as the path became more trodden, women stood before an opportunity to pass a law that demanded equality. Equality for funding, time, representation. In a simple sense, they were demanding opportunity and would stop at nothing to see it. Title IX started the whirlwind for women’s athletic success in the U.S. Given recent trends, it seems that whirlwind will not be slowing any time soon. After all, they have a lot of catching up to do and records to break. Feb. 2 stood as a solemn reminder of all the girls that Title IX has let play, too… and all the work there is left to do.