Mary Harney is not a poster child for Title IX, the groundbreaking legislation that changed the face of women's sports 35 years ago this month. The Massachusetts high school teacher and one-time NCAA softball player has never attended the Olympic Games, let alone been a member of an Olympic squad. She has never competed at the professional level, and she certainly lacks the newfound notoriety Amanda Beard is enjoying for cashing in after a lifetime of athletics.
But Harney never wanted those things. All she wanted was to play the game. For her, that is enough. Title IX gave her the chance.
"When I first got to LMU (Loyola Marymount University) in 1990," laughs Harney, now married and the mother of two, "the women's softball team practiced on a little dirt field. The field was full of rocks and nobody really maintained it. But right next door was the men's baseball field, which was this immaculately groomed sanctuary. They had guys mowing the lawn and chalking their lines, and pretty much just taking care of the place. We had nothing--no scholarships, nothing."
Harney took matters into her own hands, writing a testy letter to athletic director Brian Quinn, pointing out the inequities, reminding him of his federally-mandated Title IX obligations. "By the time I was a senior we had a real field, and the coach was able to recruit and offer scholarships. And instead of just playing whatever local teams we could find, we played a real Division I schedule. For the first time, we were really competing. There was nothing like it," says Harney.
Once upon a time, such a letter would have fallen upon deaf ears. The term "scholar-athlete" was synonymous with men's competition. With the exception of gymnasts and distance runners, intercollegiate women's athletics were largely ignored and underfunded.
But women's athletics had slowly begun making inroads into the fabric of American life. The All-American Girls Baseball League began play in 1943, showing that women could play an undiluted version of the national pastime. The Ladies Professional Golf Association began play in 1949. The Virginia Slims professional tennis tour, organized in part by groundbreaking player Billie Jean King, saw women-only competition. All the while, American women such as Wilma Rudolph were winning Olympic gold in track and field.
Combine those factors with the 1960s feminist movement, and it was only a matter of time before that hunger for competitive excellence would trickle down from the professional ranks onto college campuses.
On June 23, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed into law Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972. In 37 pithy words, it proclaimed that "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.”
The bill, written by Hawaii Congresswoman Patsy T. Mink (its official name is now the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act), did not target athletics. The focus was on the broader range of the educational spectrum, from dorm life to the marching band to chemistry classes. A professor could no longer be denied tenure based on gender. Any school or institution of learning that accepted federal funds was required to provide equal opportunities for men and women, based on their proportion of the enrollment.
It was the money part that gave the new law teeth: Failure to comply would result in loss of federal funding.
The path to gender equity, however, has never been easy. From day one, the new law was a lightning rod for criticism from both sides of the argument. Title IX has become a living document, making its way back onto the floor of Congress for revision and argument more than two dozen times. Efforts have been made to wipe it out altogether, including one such request by the NCAA. In 1988, Congress overrode a veto by President Ronald Reagan in order to ensure that the withholding of federal funding would always be the anvil hanging over the head of schools unwilling to comply with Title IX.
Supporters claim that Title IX has increased the number of women competing at the collegiate level, thus providing the sort of character-building opportunities so often identified with sports, and enriching their lives further through the commitment and discipline of being a member of a team. They point to the growth of women's athletics beyond the educational realm, with more and more women competing in sports such as marathon running, triathlon, adventure racing and cycling. One race, the New York Women's Mini-Marathon had a field of just 78 in 1972, and more than 4,000 in 2002.
Critics deride Title IX as discriminatory, noting that revenue sports such as men's football and basketball pay the freight for all those women's programs. Meanwhile, non-revenue men's sports such as swimming, wrestling, water polo, and track and field are being cut in order to make room for the women. They note that women's squads such as crew and lacrosse have been added to pad Title IX, even though many women come to those sports as a novice at the intercollegiate level.
Former intercollegiate swimmer Stan Smith offers one such example: "You may recall that the men's 4x200-meter freestyle relay at the 1984 L.A. Olympics was one of the greatest swim races of all time. The guy who swam the anchor leg was Bruce Hayes of UCLA. The U.S. squad eclipsed the existing world record not by a few tenths of a second, but by a few seconds," remembers Smith. "A few years later, UCLA, a school in the heart of prime swim territory, 'Title IXed' its men's swimming, a program which had produced an abundance of Olympic and national team members."
In January 2002, the National Wrestling Coaches Association filed suit against the Department of Education, based on the claim that Title IX was a sort of reverse discrimination that discriminated against "lesser" men's sports.
The Department of Education's response was to form a federal commission to review Title IX. Unsatisfied, a group known as the College Sports Council was born to ensure that non-revenue men's sports do not disappear altogether.
"Title IX was passed in 1972 to provide equal rights for young men and women," former tennis pro King noted in a recent statement. "Why are we battling this now?"
Her comments, along with the actions of the CSC, underscore the divisive forces of Title IX. Making matters worse is when compliance affects both men and women. On June 4, 2007, Syracuse University announced that it was cutting men's and women's swimming and diving in order to make room for an intercollegiate women's hockey team.
The search for gender equity remains elusive, and it seems there is no magic formula that will guarantee fairness for one and all.
But Mary Harney, who would go on to serve as an assistant coach at Harvard, knows firsthand what gender equity looks like. She is, coincidentally, the exact same age as Title IX. "Harvard was the first place I'd been where the softball team had everything the baseball team had. We got all the stuff we needed to compete--lots of stuff, just like them. Even PowerBars. It sounds silly, but little things like that make a difference. When I think of Title IX, I think of PowerBars."