Fifty years ago this week, legislation prohibiting federally funded educational institutions from discriminating against students or employees based on gender, became the law of the land.
It was a momentous day in sports history, though that wasn’t widely grasped until a few years later, and it represented a triumph and turning point in the life of Donna Lopiano, who grew up in Connecticut dreaming of playing baseball, pitching for the Yankees, she says, until she learned Little League rules didn’t allow girls to play.
She isn’t planning anything special to mark the anniversary. Never does.
“Another day,” she said.
Another day in the fight?
“Yep” she said. “If I had one wish, it would be for the federal government to say that no institution of higher education or high school district can get federal money unless they belong to a government association that has as a condition of membership that school’s compliance with Title IX.”
President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law on June 23, 1972, the very day he taped what came to be known as the “Smoking Gun” conversation with his chief of staff, sealing his presidential fate in the Watergate scandal. It was also the very night Bernice Gera became the first female to umpire in a professional baseball game, but the treatment she received prompted her to retire after one game in Geneva, N.Y.
Three years later Lopiano, who became the director of women’s athletics at the University of Texas, was called up for the fight to reject an amendment offered by Texas Sen. John Tower that would give football and men’s basketball an exemption from Title IX, effectively removing its teeth.
“Don’t forget, no one knew the 37 words of Title IX applied to athletic participation,” Lopiano said. “At the time, there was, as there is with all laws, the expectation that if you pass a law that makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex, that somehow that discrimination will disappear, and that’s not exactly what happens. So the expectation in 1974 and ’75, when Title IX was on the books with regards to sports, that in five or six years women would be catching up to men and be treated as well as men. And that has never happened.”
Weeks after starting at Texas, Lopiano brought the school’s football budget and the entire budget for all women’s sports to support her testimony before Congress, which helped defeat the Tower Amendment and change the course of women’s athletics, though opponents of Title IX continued for decades to push for amendments to protect so-called “revenue” sports.
“There is a lot of mythology here; 98.4% of all athletic programs are losing money,” Lopiano said. “They are not making money, contrary to public thought, ‘Oh, football is making money and basketball is making money.’ Not true. They are losing money, and they are getting subsidized by institutions, and it is not institutional money, rather it is student tuition dollars and mandatory athletics fees. There is no leadership in higher education that is saying ‘stop this madness’ in terms of expenditures in sports programs.”
Denied the chance to play in Stamford’s Little League, Lopiano became a champion softball player, joining the Connecticut Brakettes and starring as a pitcher for 10 years. She earned her bachelor’s degree in physical education from Southern Connecticut, and her doctorate at USC. She coached three sports at Brooklyn College, then spent 17 years at her groundbreaking post at Texas. Inducted into 13 Halls of Fame, Lopiano was CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation and is now president of Sports Management Resources, a consulting firm that bring expertise in Title IX compliance, among other issues in college athletics.
“I have always been data conscious,” Lopiano said. “Each year you look at that data and you hope you always see progress. The fact of the matter is that it has been pretty stagnant for the last 10 to 15 years, in that the gap between support of men’s and women’s athletics has actually increased. What we’re seeing is women never catching up. Instead, men’s sports has continued to grow. Women’s sports has also grown, exponentially when you consider they started with nothing, but they are still not within reach of men’s sports. … Right now, participation of women in high school sports has not reached the number of men who played high school sports in 1972.”
Lopiano, 75, finds examples of today’s young female athletes, such as Oregon basketball player Sedona Prince, being more willing to speak out when they are not treated fairly. Prince’s comparison of facilities and amenities between the men’s and women’s Final Fours in 2021 went viral and sparked changes.
“It really takes a Sedona Prince, or an idiosyncratic figure that steps up in a moment in time and becomes an accident of history,” Lopiano said. “It took Sedona’s communication and her willingness to speak out to make the public aware of the discriminations that was going on. You can’t apply that to all young women in sports. In fact, young female athletes and their families, despite knowing every single day that male athletes are getting treated better, are afraid to speak out because they feel if their coach gets mad at them, they may lose their starting position, or their scholarship may not be renewed. It’s great to see a Sedona Prince step up to the plate, but it shouldn’t be assumed that is anything but the exception rather than the rule.”
The 50 years since Title IX has brought monumental change. Girls can play Little League baseball, grow up to be umpires, and women are employed by major league teams in coaching and player development positions. Professional opportunities are there in basketball, among other sports.
“So there is great progress,” Lopiano said. “But 43% of all athletes in high school and college are women, but in high school they are 50% on student population, in college they are 56% of the population, so their athletic participation proportions are not near those numbers.”
More women are needed in management positions, she believes, to crack the ceilings, and the fight goes on, 50 years and counting. Women’s sports still has a general, armed with facts and figures at her fingertips, ready to lead it.
“Having grown up an athlete, you don’t cry in your beer after a loss,” Lopiano said. “So there is never a thought of, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m gong to give up.’ You have to keep pushing to be better, to make the system better.”
Dom Amore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.