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40 years later, the larger meaning of Title IX

Jere Longman’s recent article in the New York Times “For women at Games, messages are mixed” illustrates the struggles that women athletes still face in many cultures. 

In the United States Title IX was signed on June 23, 1972 by President Richard Nixon with the intention of prohibiting gender based discrimination by institutions that receive federal money. “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.”  

Although Title IX is attributed to sports it also mandates equal opportunity in education. It is in education as well as in sports that the results staggering. 

In 1972 women received 9% of medical degrees. Today they receive 48% of all medical degrees. 

In 1972 7% of women earned law degrees, 19 % received doctoral degrees and women comprised just 30 % of college students. Today women earn 47 percent of law degrees, 50 percent of doctoral degrees and comprise of 57 percent of all college students. 

Today, the idea that everyone should have the opportunity to play sports also finds little controversy. Sports build character, teamwork, teaches one to overcome adversity. It is these life lessons that participants carry with them from the playing field. 

What is also evident in studies is that participation in team sports can result in improvements to education, work and health prospects. There are other associated benefits for those that participate in sports such as lower teenage pregnancy rates, better grades, lower risk of obesity and higher self-esteem. No one disagrees that these growth opportunities mean girls are more likely to be active than before.

As a result of Title IX we are now seeing the second generation of women athletes exploding on the national stage. 

As a former college soccer player I have always followed the European soccer leagues and like all soccer fans look forward to the Olympics and World Cup. Being the son of a feminist and a father of two girls I have watch the women’s soccer since 1985 when the US Women’s national team was formed and  Michelle Akers was its star. 

Since then the US women’s team has dominated internationally -- winning one world cup, three Olympic gold medals, and eight Algarve cups. No other international team, either men or women, have had as many successes.

I disagree with Longman who wrote that Alex Morgan’s choice to pose in Sports Illustrated “reinforced the unfortunate notion that to be successful, female athletes must position themselves as sex objects.” The truth is that advertisers look for recognizable faces to promote their products. 

Alex Morgan's success on the soccer field for the United States National team exposed her to opportunities off the field. After discussing them with her family she decided to participate in one of those opportunities. 

Now, when a women athlete takes advantage of an opportunity she is criticized and is signaled out as sending a mixed message. Why should there be an issue with a women athlete taking advantage of an opportunity which male athletes have been doing the same thing for many years?

Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Palmer, whose nickname is “cakes,” posed in his underwear for Jockey in the 1970s and Michael Jordan, a National Basketball star posed with Jockey in the eighties. Current soccer star David Beckham is seen today with more clothes off than on. Models of both genders pose for all kinds of products today that are a lot more risque.  

I have more of an issue with the billboard ads than I do with a successful athlete making a conscious decision to pose tastefully in the nation's preeminent sports magazine. 

It is time to celebrate our girls achievements on the field and support their decision off the field whatever they may be. 

Title IX has come a long way to level the playing field for women athletes, now let’s allow women to transition their onfield success into mainstream America.

John Zaccaro, Jr. is an attorney, father of three, and son of former Democratic vice presidential candidate, former Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro.

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