This week, the University of Michigan celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX, with a host of speakers and panels discussing the historic legislation and its impact on girls, women and the United States itself.
It all started pretty quietly. Just a sentence buried in the back of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.
“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 educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Just a sentence – one that seems pretty straightforward to us, even self-evident. But that little line stirred up our society in ways that few pieces of legislation ever have. We call it Title IX – and perhaps only the Civil Rights Acts changed our nation the past century more dramatically – or did more good.
But nowhere in that powerful paragraph do the authors say one word about sports. It’s not really about sports, but educational opportunities. It says a lot about Americans’ unequaled belief in the value of school sports, that we consider them essential to a comprehensive education.
Unlike the Civil Rights Acts, Title IX didn’t even register with most Americans when it passed. But the NCAA’s leaders recognized its potential immediately, and did everything they could to stop it. They were joined by congressmen, school presidents, principals, athletic directors and coaches coast to coast, all trying to limit it, or kill it altogether. But the durable Title IX has survived every attempt to cut it down.
Still, it seemed like just an arcane legal issue, until a year later, when a seemingly meaningless tennis match – just an exhibition between an old man and a woman 26 years his junior – made it very real, very fast.
The man happened to be a 55-year old guy named Bobby Riggs, a Hall of Fame player who had won six major championships, and swept Wimbledon’s singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles – in 1939.
He was also an incorrigible hustler. When he first challenged Billie Jean King – who would win 39 major titles in her career – to an exhibition match, she declined. But after Riggs crushed top-ranked Margaret Court, half his age, to earn a Sports Illustrated cover story, King felt she had to accept. They would play the “Battle of the Sexes” for the biggest payday in the history of the sport – and bragging rights that would be shared by half the country’s population.
King had no illusions about the stakes. “I accepted the challenge,” she said, “so that girls and women could feel positive about participating in athletics.”
On Sept. 20, 1973, in front of 50 million Americans watching on TV, about a quarter of our population, and a Houston Astrodome packed with more than 30,000 spectators – both still American tennis records – King stayed strong and focused, and won emphatically. In the process, so did millions of American girls, most of whom had not been born yet.
“There should be nothing,” King said, “to stop them from pursuing and fulfilling their dreams.” Before Title IX and the Battle of the Sexes, one in 30 girls played high school sports. Today, more than half do.
Contrary to urban myth, Riggs wanted to win that match, and badly – but his theatrics were mostly promotional. He had been taught the game by a woman, won many mixed doubles titles, and fervently believed women should play sports. It was an act – but a hell of an act.
Over the years, Riggs and King became close friends, and talked often. The night before Riggs died of cancer, King called him to say, “I love you.”
It all started with a single sentence – and it ended with one, too.
In between, everything changed.
About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” He also co-authored “A Legacy of Champions,” and provided commentary for “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game,” which has been airing on various stations in Michigan and nationally.
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