Nowhere in the lone sentence that comprises Title IX, the 1972 law that forbids discrimination, denial of benefits or exclusion on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal financial assistance, does the word “sports” appear.
The law that opened playing fields to millions of women never specifically mentions its best-known application. It was a nuance in the phrasing, a choice of words that nearly didn’t happen, that made Title IX become synonymous with cataclysmic change for female athletes.
“In those 37 words is the word ‘activity.’ And because of that word, it’s the only reason, really, that we have women’s sports today,” said tennis immortal and women’s rights activist Billie Jean King.
“And the reason everybody thinks it’s about women’s sports is because we’re so visible. You don’t look at people sitting in a classroom.”
Speaking by phone while traveling to Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX being signed into law, King recalled a conversation she had 15 years ago with the late Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, who is credited with shepherding Title IX through the Senate. The late Patsy Mink of Hawaii, the first woman of color elected to Congress, got it through the House of Representatives.
Bayh, whose advocacy for equality was inspired by his wife Marvella having been refused admission to law school because of her gender, told King the final wording of Title IX was almost accidental.
“He said they almost didn’t put ‘activity’ into the law. That they couldn’t decide. ‘Do we even need it?’ ” King said. “And then as a catch-all they said, ‘Let’s just leave it in. You never know.’”
They couldn’t know it would be life-changing for women who previously had to beg, borrow and improvise to play sports. “You don’t understand inclusion,” King said, “unless you’ve been excluded.”
King grew up in Long Beach, where the main library now bears her name. She played tennis at Cal State-LA but there were no scholarships for female athletes and she worked two jobs while in school. Her husband Larry had a tennis scholarship. So did a couple of prominent local male players, Arthur Ashe (UCLA) and Stan Smith (USC), whom she’d see at Wimbledon after they played in the NCAA tournament. She didn’t have that opportunity. Like most women then, she also couldn’t get a credit card on her own.
The inequality of prize money in the Open Era of tennis, which began in 1968, inspired King to advocate for change. For winning Wimbledon that year, King got 750 British pounds. Rod Laver got 2,000. “Men controlled everything. Larry, my former husband, told me they would try to get us out of tennis because all the money belongs to them,” King said. “So they started dropping events and having less and less prize money.”
Those snubs inspired a group of women to break away from existing tennis authority in 1970 as the “Original Nine” and start their own tour. King’s star power, the skills of promoter Gladys Heldman and the sponsorship of Philip Morris kept the tour alive until it caught on and thrived. Two years later came Title IX, which has survived several efforts to water it down. A year after that came the birth of the Women’s Tennis Assn. and King’s “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition match against huckster Bobby Riggs.
He had decisively defeated Margaret Court and was expected to do the same to King on national TV. It was a carnival. But for King, who was carried to the court at the Houston Astrodome on a litter held by muscular, shirtless men, the occasion had a profound subtext.
“One of the reasons I wanted to win that so desperately is because I wanted Title IX not to get weakened,” she said. “I knew it was about social change and I knew we were only in our third year of women’s professional tennis and we were very young, in our infancy. And so I wanted to change the hearts and minds of the country to believe in Title IX, to believe that women deserve equality.”
Equal pay is now the norm at the four Grand Slam Events, and Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams rank among the world’s highest-paid female athletes. But they don’t make as much as the highest-paid male athletes, and women’s professional leagues remain uncertain propositions. King, who has a financial interest in the Dodgers, is working with Dodgers controlling owner Mark Walter to study the feasibility of a women’s pro hockey league, but that’s a long way off.
A significant ripple effect of Title IX opening sports participation to women and ending admission quotas in education was that it also opened doors beyond the locker room. A 2018 study by Ernst & Young found 94% of women who held C suite (high-ranking) positions were former athletes. Fifty-two percent played sports at the college level, compared to 39% of women at other managerial levels. No longer excluded from the old boys’ network male athletes had built and later used to advance professionally, women built their own networks and soaked up knowledge they previously had been denied.
“It’s not about being No. 1 or anything like that. It’s about learning the culture that the men have created through business and sports, and it does help in a tremendous way for women,” King said. “Athletics and sports teach you to be resilient, they teach you to finish a project, they teach you how to lead, they teach you how to be a team player. …You learn that through sports, and that’s what men have always had.”
Despite women’s gains under Title IX, King’s quest for equality isn’t done.
“I think probably Title IX has probably helped suburban white girls the most and then the next 50 years we really have to concentrate on getting more and more girls of color,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’ve taken care of girls with disabilities, developing that area. We have to help the LBGT community, especially trans athletes.”
She worries about attacks on gay rights, such as the Texas GOP’s platform calling gay people “abnormal.” She worries about states recently passing laws to restrict or outlaw abortion. “It’s slipped back, especially with abortion rights,” she said.
When she helped form the WTA she told fellow players to always remember they were in a tenuous position because the pendulum of public opinion tends to swing from one extreme to another. That applies today to every gain derived from Title IX.
“You always have to be working hard, be diligent and hypervigilant and pay attention because things do change,” she said. “I think everyone because of this anniversary there’s focus on it, and they’re starting to realize it wasn’t just a sports thing. It was really about education and the classrooms and having equality.”
Those 37 words have changed the world. Equality diminishes no one and lifts everyone, a vital lesson King has passed on to us all, to be lived and fought for every day on the court and in the classroom and everywhere else we go.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.