Fear-mongering and Title IX

It’s perfectly understandable to go back down memory lane with the 40th anniversary of Title IX approaching and recall what women’s sports were like in the 1970s.

I know this, because I was playing in fledgling youth sports leagues at the time, limited to slow-pitch softball and six-on-six basketball. That was all we had, but those memories — and they were blissful ones — have been on my mind a lot not just in the last few weeks, but as I have gotten older and tried to understand what they have meant to my life.

I understand why there have been so many accounts of the women rowers at Yale who stripped down to nothing in the mid-1970s to protest the lack of facilities and resources that their male counterparts took for granted.

Even if these happy media chroniclers haven’t written at all about the female athletes who fired the first shot across the bow for their rights under Title IX, I understand. Three years before the Yale rowers, several young women college tennis players sued other women, those leading the first intercollegiate athletic governing body for women, but who thought that women athletes shouldn’t be allowed scholarships.

Not a word about any of this has been uttered during this “celebratory” time, but I understand why. It would dash the familiar narrative of men — and only men — standing in the way of progress for women in sports. The fuller history of women in sports is more than pock-marked with decades of resistance from women sports leaders, but there is no room for any of this now. Or ever.

Aside from that, the memories and recollections and perspectives from so many individuals — athletes, coaches, administrators, activists, parents and others — have been useful in helping those of younger generations appreciate how much progress has been made in such a short amount of time.

What’s becoming almost unbearable are the shrieks from the Title IX establishment — including some prominent media types — that we must continue to “fight” as though this were still the 1970s.

On today’s espnW — the official benefactor of the Women’s Sports Foundation — columnist Johnette Howard has continued her employers’ continuing stenography on this issue.

In particular, Howard fumes about the recent decision by a conservative Catholic school in Arizona not to play in a state championship baseball team because its opponent included a female player:

“That happened in 2012 America. The same 2012 America that has a pretty roiling political debate about whether there’s a ‘war on women’ over everything from birth control to workplace rights to, well, you name it.”

Of course. The “war on women.” I may be more liberal than Howard, and I deeply despise the gender politics of the right, but this is ridiculous. Title IX has always been about politics, and the flawed way in which it is being enforced in sports reflects the political agenda of the Title IX establishment.

I understand that, too.

But Howard points to the example of Paige Sultzbach to conjure up a phony existing “war” on Title IX, a law she says has amazingly endured “given the sustained, occasionally ingenious, sometimes mean-spirited, sneaky and downright cynical attempts to roll it back or scrub it from the books completely.”

While there were stalwart opponents of Title IX and its sports regulations in the 1970s and into the 1980s, those foes — the NCAA and the lords of college football — were conquered long ago. All that’s left are a few individuals and groups who want to revamp the regulations and change the current interpretation of the law away from one that places an emphasis on proportionality, on numbers.

They’re not talking about scrubbing it from the books. They’re not being “mean-spirited” in pointing out that the focus on numbers has been at a great cost to some male athletes in some sports. Critics of the interpretation — not Title IX — are talking about making it work to reflect the intent and spirit of Congress when it passed the law (without any mention of sports) that President Nixon signed 40 years ago on Saturday.

It’s one thing to remember the past, and to learn from the examples of women’s sports pioneers, and to appreciate what exists now. I may never agree with some of them on Title IX, but I do respect their passion and their tenacity for their cause.

It’s another thing altogether to continue to fight the past, as though we were still living in it. I’m sure Howard remembers the 1970s, as I do. To be honest, I had almost forgotten about disco music until the recent deaths of Donna Summer and Robin Gibb.

I’m not trying to be flip here, but to point out that perpetual indignation can work against your own best interests. Too many high-profile women’s sports leaders, such as former Women’s Sports Foundation CEO Donna Lopiano, remain stuck in the 1970s, still bristling about what they didn’t have, as she reiterated again this week:

“I don’t think anyone could have envisioned the kind of reality we have today. It’s hard to envision a future you never had.”

And she’s regarded as one of the true visionaries of women’s sports. I didn’t have much more in the ways of opportunities than Lopiano did, but this is a perfect example of why the present tone of advocacy, as well as the Title IX regulations, have to change with the future in mind.

I tried to shake some cobwebs loose about this a year ago in my series “Women’s Sports Without Illusions.”

I’ve updated those posts in a new project that I will be unveiling here very soon. So please stay tuned.

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