Standing in ready position, Chandler McKinney cups her softball glove and waits until the crack of a bat sends a line drive to center field, where she catches the ball a few inches above the grassy field.
“Way to go, Chan!” a teammate cheers as the 17-year-old senior jogs toward the dugout to strap on her helmet and prepare to bat for her team at Dalton (Ga.) High School.
A straight-A student who plans to pursue a career as a midwife, Chandler has received scholarship offers to play both college softball and basketball. But her involvement in all kinds of sports since she was a child benefited her long before the prospects of attending college, she says—from boosting her confidence to cultivating self-discipline and healthful habits.
“It can really develop your social skills, being able to lean on other people and have trust with a close group of friends,” adds Chandler, of Ringgold, Ga. (pop. 3,580).
Leveling the playing field
Chandler’s experience—playing multiple sports, an attentive coaching staff and scholarship offers—would not have been possible without Title IX, a 1972 civil rights law requiring that boys and girls receive equal educational opportunities, including sports, in schools that receive federal funds.
Before Title IX, one in 27 girls participated in high school varsity sports. Today, two in five play. In college, the number of women athletes has increased by more than 500 percent since the federal law was enacted, and sports scholarships for females, once rare, are more common today. Equally important, playing sports influences the lives of women long after leaving the locker room. In one study, 89 percent of female executives attributed their business success to participation in sports as youngsters.
“You learn how to win, how to lose and how to postpone short-term gratification for long-term rewards,” says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, 49, who won three gold medals in swimming at the 1984 Olympics.
Hogshead-Makar was 10 years old when Title IX became law and began opening doors for young female athletes such as herself. She received a swimming scholarship to Duke University, became a world-class swimmer, and eventually earned her law degree from Georgetown University.
“Personally, one of the best things that I got out of my swimming career was getting into the water and swimming my absolute hardest, doing my 100 percent best, on days I did not want to, with every cell in my body,” says Hogshead-Makar, now senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation and a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law.
No game, no glory
Prior to the 20th century, women were discouraged from participating in sports. Sweating and aggressive play were considered unfeminine, and girls and women were perceived as physically too weak for competition, particularly to play endurance sports. Even during the 1950s and 1960s, girls’ team sports opportunities generally were limited to school gym class and recreational leagues.
However, Pat Hoover, 64, a pre-Title IX varsity basketball player for the University of Oregon, wasn’t deterred. Even though her high school in Oregon fielded no sports teams for girls, she loved “the flow of sharing and teamwork” in athletics. She began playing college basketball in 1966 and observed that playing conditions were different for women and men.
Her team, for instance, was led by female physical education teachers, not dedicated coaches, and played in a small gymnasium while the men’s team played in a new campus arena. With no professional support staff, supplies or uniforms, the women brought their own knee braces and ankle tape from home and wore sleeveless pinafores over the physical education uniforms they shared with the women’s softball, volleyball and track teams. The students drove each other to away games and ate sack lunches in the rival teams’ locker rooms.
“Once a year, we got a treat of going to a McDonald’s fast food restaurant for our dinner,” recalls Hoover, a retired broadcast journalist in Eugene, Ore. “The boys traveled on buses, on trains, and they ate out at restaurants, and hot meals were provided for them.”
A few of the young teacher-coaches pressed for better equipment and, during Hoover’s senior year in 1969, the university bought uniforms for the women.
Last year, the University of Oregon recognized the contributions of the school’s early female athletes, presenting varsity letters to Hoover and 270 other female players and coaches from her era.
“For me it wasn’t pride as much as it was relief—that the athletic department now has publicly acknowledged that there were good athletes playing in pre-Title IX days who really worked hard, trained and represented the school well,” Hoover says.
Hoover finds further consolation knowing that today’s female athletes enjoy opportunities, support and praise that eluded her and her teammates. “I know that a small piece of that is a result of my team,” she says, “and what we did to try to enlarge those opportunities.”
A new season
New opportunities for women have not come without costs. When President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law on June 23, 1972, schools had to reorganize their sports programs and reallocate funds, prompting critics to blame Title IX for the elimination of some men’s teams.
Despite the controversy, society’s perception of girls playing sports has become more positive, and young women are reaping benefits.
Research shows that many enduring healthy habits are rooted in early sports participation. Athletic girls tend to perform better academically, have lower obesity rates, demonstrate higher self-esteem, and refrain from risky activities such as alcohol consumption, drug use and binge eating. They also have higher rates of graduation from high school and entrance into college.
“But it’s the lifelong consequences that are really amazing,” Hogshead-Makar says. “Half of all women over the age of 65 have osteoporosis. You prevent it through weight-bearing exercises during puberty. And girls who participate in high school athletics have a far less chance of getting breast cancer for the rest of their lives.”
Brittany Butts, 22, a student at Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y., is among the beneficiaries of Title IX.
Butts began playing soccer in first grade, dribbling the ball along the sidelines at her older sister’s practice games. An honor student, she led the Massapequa (N.Y.) High School Chiefs to two state championships and received a full athletic scholarship. As a midfielder for Hofstra, Butts enjoys access to trainers, high-tech conditioning equipment, and uniforms laundered for her overnight.
“Soccer has taught me so many things,” says Butts, who is studying to be a psychologist. “It’s taught me how to work with people, make compromises when you don’t want to. It’s taught me to battle through the toughest times and pick myself up after a loss or a huge mistake.”