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Title IX helped level playing field, gave women chance to succeed

It's about my son.

My children happen to attend the same California high school that I did. Back in my day, in the years after the passage of Title IX, a few of my friends started the girls' soccer team. Since they couldn't get access to any of the high school fields, they had to trek across town to the local middle school to practice. No one knew or cared that they were there, so sometimes the sprinklers went off in the middle of practice. They wore old volleyball uniforms and boys' cleats that didn't fit right.

No one paid any attention to them -- including, sadly, me. And I was the sports editor of the high school paper.

Fast forward a quarter century and the Tamalpais High girls' soccer team had evolved into something of a powerhouse. The players were among the school's elite athletes, playing for traveling club teams and in Olympic Development Programs and wooed by college coaches.

I went to one of their playoff games, on my alma mater's football field, and the stands were packed with adults and students. There was my teenage son, with his shirt off and torso painted red and blue, cheering loudly for the team and his friends who played on it.

When Tamalpais won the game and the league championship, the students -- my son included -- leapt over the railing of the stands and rushed the field in celebration.

Sitting up in the bleachers, I felt my eyes well with unexpected tears.

Though I had spent a career covering sports, including the most dominant female athletes of our times, it was this scene on my own high school field where the full impact of Title IX hit me. On the same field where I once was a lousy cheerleader, because I realized I'd rather be writing about the players than shaking pom-poms for them, on the same field where my husband played football and my son played lacrosse, the soccer girls were conquering heroes.

Ranking the 40 greatest female athletes of the Title IX era

Somewhere on my path between exiting childhood and raising my own children to teenage years, our culture changed. Title IX didn't just provide athletic opportunities to girls, it created a fundamental shift in society, changing perceptions and attitudes and boundaries.

Thanks to Title IX the world became a place where my daughter never once doubted her ability to compete in sports, and where I could write about sports for a living; a place where my son didn't think twice about celebrating for his female classmates, any more than I had questioned cheering (ineptly) for my male friends.

The shift wasn't just confined to sports. By 1972, a quarter century after Jackie Robinson debuted with the Dodgers, we'd already learned that sports can be a bellwether for change and acceptance. There was never going to be an Equal Rights Amendment (as a kid it took me some time to figure out that ERA wasn't the same as Catfish Hunter's key statistic). Title IX was as close as we got, and it helped change all of society, starting on the fields and courts and reverberating outward into all of society.

That first decade was one of fits and starts and battles, when girls found old volleyball uniforms and were relegated to out-of-the-way fields and gyms, willing their way into becoming teams. By 1983, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women was dissolved and women's collegiate sports were absorbed by the NCAA, which had originally opposed Title IX. In that second decade, women's sports and championships became established and ingrained.

Still, as a young reporter, when I was asked to do a 20-year anniversary series on Title IX, I was shocked to discover how far there was yet to go. All the Jackie Joyner-Kersees and Jennifer Azzis of the world didn't create anything close to equality. Around that 20th anniversary, after years of patiently waiting for schools to do the right thing, more and more women started to use the power of the federal law. And lawyers. And lawsuits.

The decade between the 20th and 30th anniversary was one of exponential change. Not only were women fighting aggressively for their rights, but also the first generation to grow up with Title IX came of age and changed perceptions. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics -- the "Women's Games" -- Title IX babies won trunkloads of gold medals. Three years later, the Women's World Cup turned expectations about what women's athletic events could be upside down.

Next month is the 40th anniversary of the law. The past decade has been tumultuous. As budgets have been squeezed and programs slashed, athletic directors and school presidents have seemed perfectly happy to fuel gender wars, blaming Title IX and female athletes for their institutions' own poor decisions and lack of planning. No one, least of not women who fought for years for opportunity, wanted to see another athlete's opportunity taken away. Meanwhile football -- a men's sport -- grew obese, sucking away resources from other programs; despite perceptions most football programs fail to break even.

In recent years, there has been a groundswell to pay athletes who play in revenue generating programs (football and men's basketball), though such a plan would appear to directly violate Title IX. Aside from the difficulty of implementing a program when only half of the revenue producing programs at FBS schools actually cover their own expenses, such a proposal has a gender-nullifying affect. It puts female athletes and male athletes in nonrevenue producing sports on the same side of the battle: trying to salvage a system that can make room for them.

The debate is no longer about finding value in women's sports. Instead it has become whether or not we value athletic participation among students who don't bring cash to the coffers. Though there are still plenty of critics who try to belittle women's sports, they seem like remnants of an ancient time.

To them, I offer my favorite Geno Auriemma quote. When the UConn basketball coach received an e-mail from a man telling him how terrible women's basketball is, he wrote back: ""Where do you live? I'm coming to your house to see what you do that's so f -- ing great."

At the 40th anniversary of Title IX a few truths exist. The federal law remains overwhelmingly popular. And there's no turning back.

The law has changed the world we live in. My son has moved on from his body-painting high school years but my daughter now plays soccer for the same high school, feeling the pressure to live up to the legacy of the players who came before her -- something inconceivable a generation ago.

She currently has staples in her scalp from a collision on a header and turf burns on her legs and wants to make sure neither interferes with her look for prom. She inherited her warrior mentality from her football- and rugby-playing father and maybe some of her unwillingness to be relegated to the sidelines from her mother.

She couldn't imagine her life without being able to compete at sports. She couldn't imagine why anyone would ever even question it.