Today marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, a law best known for banning gender discrimination in the classroom and on campuses, as well as its key role in safeguarding gender equity in athletics. Like any good birthday celebration, this 50th anniversary marker provides an opportunity to reflect on its “life” — the accomplishments and the failures of the last 50 years, and the aspirations for the years ahead. If we were to ask 100 different women at a party to stand up and share their stories of Title IX, each would have a different one to tell. Some would have close relationships and strong ties while others would barely be acquainted with this storied legislation.
Despite years spent playing sports and coaching, I was merely an acquaintance of Title IX. I played sports year-round from elementary school all through college, so Title IX surely impacted my life. Yet, I passed through school systems that allowed me the opportunity to play and I never noticed inequity. I was blind to disparities. In many ways, I think I had great the fortune to have coaches whose commitment to the team eclipsed any institutional biases; and I was lucky to have opportunities to compete.
Then, in my last year of college in the early 1990s at Wesleyan University, the school’s athletic office announced that it intended to eliminate our women’s ice hockey team. We were stunned. Based on a recommendation from another coach, we contacted a lawyer to write the university on our behalf, threatening Title IX violations. Two weeks later, the team was reinstated. We even got new uniforms and our coaches got raises. We were so happy. But, even then, my teammates and I did not dwell on this reversal. With no chip on our shoulders, we just went back to being athletes. Title IX had served its purpose, but then it was behind us.
Others of my generation and the generation before did not have that path. They did not have schools where all the girls played sports, from wrestling to ice hockey or lacrosse. Opportunities to play were, and still are, not equally offered and supported for girls throughout this country.
The women of Title IX are the ones to celebrate on the birthday of Title IX — the battles they won to get us where we are today are humbling and incredible. Lacrosse is one of the leaders in that story. We only have to look at when the United States Women’s Lacrosse Association, the first all-encompassing governing body of the sport in this country, was founded — in 1931, with the first national tournament in 1933. While there had, and have, been other national men’s organizations, none addressed all levels of the men’s game in the fashion the USWLA did until the formation of USA Lacrosse in 1998.
You just have to look at someone like Tina Sloan Green, who started a women’s lacrosse program at HBCU Lincoln University in 1970, two years before Title IX! She then launched the program at Temple in 1975. She is the first head female coach of color in collegiate women’s lacrosse and had a Hall of Fame career leading Temple to national championships. Coach Green was joined by many other great leaders in this generation. On the international and national stage, women’s lacrosse was led by women like legendary William & Mary coach Feffie Barnhill and longtime official Pat Dillon, both Hall of Famers and the two earliest female chairs of the USA Lacrosse Board of Directors.
Women have led lacrosse for decades and they have provided a fertile ground for the advancement of Title IX. In 1982, 10 years after the beginning of Title IX, there were 105 women’s collegiate teams in the NCAA, built upon the lacrosse groundwork of folks like Tina, Feffie and others alongside the broader advocacy of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Forty years later in 2022, there are 525 NCAA collegiate programs offering women’s lacrosse, and hundreds more at the NAIA, WCLA collegiate club and junior college level.
These women blazed trails and many women today continue to champion, advocate and stand on their shoulders by providing opportunities for female athletes. The women’s sports community has rallied around the birthday celebration of the legislation. As stakeholders in women’s sports, as parents, athletes and USA Lacrosse, we celebrate these victories, from the parity finally achieved by the U.S. women’s soccer team to the appearance of the NCAA women’s lacrosse championship game on ESPN this year.
The work, commitment, and intentionality that has gotten us here is immense. But my journey remains a cautionary tale for our present day. Inequities do persist, access and perceptions continue to be obstacles for female athletes and even more so for female athletes of color. Even if you do not see it or experience it, know that there is so much work still to be done. Now is not the time to rest but to double down on raising up daughters, sisters, friends, and teammates affording them the opportunity to be athletes one day without that qualifier in front of their name team. There should be no need for women’s lacrosse in its name — lacrosse is lacrosse.
The World Lacrosse Women’s Championship is coming next week. For the first time, there will be 30 teams from around the world competing during the event at Towson University. For some of the teams, this event is a culmination of decades of national teams before them, but for other teams this is truly a groundbreaking moment, a first opportunity to compete and be celebrated at that level.
Sports is a game changer for women, and Title IX is, and has been, a game changer for girls and women’s access to sports. The upcoming world championship provides the perfect platform for us to celebrate this landmark legislation, the incredible women who have paved the way for today’s teams and the achievement of the rosters and staff of the 30 national lacrosse teams here to compete .
Caitlin Kelley is the senior director, sports growth and women's lacrosse, for USA Lacrosse.