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Happy Anniversary, Title IX

Some of Mississippi’s best athletes reflect on the progress made in sports equality that started with the 1972 law.

Written by Eugene Stockstill | Photographs Courtesy Ole Miss Athletics and Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame

Without Title IX, it’s a much-better-than-average bet that Ole Miss hoops standout Shakira Austin would never have made the roster of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. Or would have had a team or a league to join in the first place. Or would have ever nurtured a hope of having a future in the sport she loves.

Fifty years ago, former President Richard Nixon signed into law Title IX, which made sexual discrimination, harassment and assault at federally funded schools illegal. It went into force one year before Billie Jean King’s much ballyhooed tennis victory over Bobby Riggs gave feminists extra inspiration to fight for equity in sports. ESPN dedicated a whole month’s worth of coverage this summer to the legislation’s anniversary.

Title IX is a big deal in sports.

“It’s changed the whole arena,” said Bill Blackwell, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson.

But even after half a century, their names still leap off the page at you:

—Deborah Brock, the Delta State basketball phenom who scored 22 points, committed no turnovers and lead the school to a national title against LSU in 1976.

—Anna Jackson, who had an 80% winning record at William B. Murrah High School in Jackson and coached the girl’s team to nine (yep!) 5A state championships.

—Janet Marie Smith, the MSU-trained architect who designed Camden Yards in inner city Baltimore and garners credit as the person who saved Boston’s beloved Fenway Park from demolition.

They are all inductees into the state’s hall of fame, of course, and the reason they are so easy to spot on the list should be obvious.

“We’ve made progress,” said Smith, now the senior vice president for planning and development with the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I wasn’t even in college when it passed. In 1989, the idea of a woman in the clubhouse was unthinkable, and 10 years later, we were building women’s umpire rooms. Women’s impact in sports at all levels is felt very intensely.”

Title IX reads, in part: “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.”

Those words opened a door. Take a look at the following stats. In 1972, about 30,000 women competed in NCAA sports, as opposed to 170,000 men, according to information from The History Channel. In 2012, more than 3 million women were competing in high school and college athletics. But a report earlier this year from the Women’s Sports Foundation found that high school girls still have fewer athletic opportunities than high school boys of today.

“The mere existence of Title IX does not ensure equal opportunities unless it is enforced for everyone,” Billie Jean King told NBC Sports.

Ole Miss’s Shakira Austin could not be reached for an interview for this story. But Armintie Price Herrington, a predecessor of Austin’s at the university and with the Mystics, said she has heard all the arguments that made Title IX a necessity: Women can’t dunk, can’t be mothers and athletes at the same time, need lower basketball goals, don’t have the fan base to support higher pay.

But Price Herrington also enjoyed support all along the way from her family, as well as coaches and fans. Chris Greer, a former Myrtle High School coach, believed in her so much that he started a track program after he saw her run for the first time. When she looks back on her career, Price Herrington sees not only how far she has come but how much the country has changed.

“I do think we are making progress,” she said, citing the success of the U.S women’s soccer team and the WNBA’s growing popularity. “We still have a ways to go, but change is happening.”

It took more than legislation to bring about change, though. It took people willing to stick to their principles and support equal rights when doing so was far from easy.

In earlier days, “if the girls had five balls, the boys got 10,” Coach Anna Jackson said. “I was one of those who spoke up and spoke out. I was a fighter.”

Salary, coaching and opportunity inequities make the struggle for equality an ongoing one, but past progress can and does serve as inspiration for the future.

“I think some of the most impressive people that I have watched in sports are those women who went first, the first journalist to be in the clubhouse, the first journalist to be calling a game,” Janet Marie Smith said. “It’s exciting to me to see how many glass ceilings have been broken. I’m just a huge admirer of those women who have risen to the top.”

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