Analysis

At Title IX event at Gillette Stadium, trailblazing women share experiences pushing for equality

From left: Kayla Burton, Jackie MacMullan, Kristine Lilly, Michele Roberts and Kathy Delaney-Smith participate in a panel discussion commemorating the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX at Gillette Stadium. (Courtesy of the New England Patriots/Eric J. Adler)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When Billie Jean King took on Bobby Riggs in their infamous "battle of the sexes" tennis match, there was plenty to consider. The $100,000 prize. The TV audience, which was estimated to number 90 million. The chance to strike a major blow in the fight for equality between men and women in sports.

But she was also thinking about a significant gain that had already been won -- and the importance of protecting that gain.

The King-Riggs faceoff "followed Title IX by only one year," King said earlier this month. "And this is on my mind throughout the match; I didn't want Title IX to be weakened in any way, and I knew people were already trying to weaken it ... I wanted to make sure Title IX stayed strong and really, really would start to kick in more and more as time went on, so there was a lot riding on this match."

King -- who, of course, was victorious in the match -- was speaking via video conference at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, hosted by Kraft Sports + Entertainment (which includes Robert Kraft's New England Patriots) and Kraft Analytics Group at Gillette Stadium. Title IX, part of the Education Amendments of 1972 signed into law in June of that year, protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.

In addition to a conversation between King and journalist Jackie MacMullan, the event included a panel, which I moderated, featuring MacMullan, former executive director for the NBA Players Association (and Harvard Law alum) Michele Roberts, three-time Olympic medalist and U.S. soccer player Kristine Lilly and former Harvard women's basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith. The women present for the event shared the impact of Title IX on their lives, as well as their experiences pushing for equality within the sports realm.

Before she built a dynasty at Harvard, Delaney-Smith coached girls varsity basketball and swimming at Westwood High School in Westwood, Massachusetts. Noticing the stark disparities between the resources given to boys' and girls' sports programs, she filed four lawsuits under Title IX against the school. As a result, girls programs were furnished with new uniforms, more gym time, additional coaches and equal access to locker rooms.

Even when she moved on to Harvard, Delaney-Smith -- who retired earlier this year after a 40-year stretch at the school that made her the winningest head coach in Ivy League history, among both men and women -- was taken aback by the imbalance of treatment between men's and women's sports there.

"I love Harvard, that's why I stayed, but they're not perfect," Delaney-Smith said. "I felt my 40 years there was fighting the fight, having the discussion, being aware, what's the media covering? What's the budget? The bottom line now, I feel, is we have to pay attention to the quality of our experience."

"Title IX is always in a tenuous position, so please don't take it for granted." -- Billie Jean King

MacMullan is living proof of Delaney-Smith's impact.

"I didn't have a lot of confidence," MacMullan said, referring to her days at Westwood, where she played for Delaney-Smith; she also covered the school for the local newspaper. "I didn't even try out for the team until my junior year of high school; I was afraid to try out for the team. But Kathy was the first person, besides my parents, who said to me, 'You can do anything you want; you can do that,' and I'm looking, and I don't see many women sportswriters ... But I think when I went from Westwood to [the University of New Hampshire], I was already having this idea, 'OK, I'm going to try to do this.' "

MacMullan played Division I hoops at UNH, and she explained how her time there prepared her for life after, which included a decades-long, award-winning run in sports journalism, first at the Boston Globe, then with ESPN.

"Title IX said I had the same rights as all the male journalists, but of course that wasn't always the case," MacMullan said. "I worked with great men; I didn't work with a lot of women. I just kept it professional ... I just did my job and I kept moving."

Being one of the few women in a space full of men was also a familiar experience to Lilly and Roberts. In 1995, Lilly became one of the only women to play in an otherwise-all-male indoor professional soccer league. In 2014, Roberts stepped into a demanding role as the first woman executive director for the NBPA.

"I remember when I was interviewing for the job, and the players were interviewing me, but they said to me, 'If you get this job, you will probably find yourself, more often than not, the only African American in the room and most certainly the only woman in the room; how are you going to handle that?' " Roberts said.

"Man, do you have any idea what I've been doing for the last 40 years?" Roberts said, referencing her time as a prominent attorney. She said the trial lawyers she worked alongside were typically white men, with very few women and hardly any women of color in sight.

The visibility of her position within pro basketball meant a lot to others.

"When I got the job, I got letters from people," said Roberts, who retired earlier this year. "The overwhelming majority were from men who had daughters, who said, 'Your presence in that position allows me to believe that my daughter can do what my son can do.' "

Roberts' message resonated with Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who was in the audience for the event.

"I came up with [a] single mom, and my mom was everything to me. ... Everything that I am and I learned is from her," said McCourty. "Today, I come here, going back to my daughter saying what I heard here today, I want her to think she can be anything that my son can be."

The struggle to change minds and eradicate inequality is ongoing. Lilly, who grew up playing soccer with her brother and other boys before a career that included two Olympic gold medals, one silver and two World Cup championships, remembered a time when the team she was playing against refused to participate because she was the only girl on an all-boys team. Recently, the U.S. women's national team won a years-long struggle to ensure the men's and women's teams are paid equally.

In her conversation with MacMullan, King recounted meeting former President Barack Obama, who explained to her the impact that her match with Riggs had on him as a 12-year-old. He told her it also informed how he has raised his daughters.

She also explained that defeating Riggs "was all about social change."

"For women, for the first time, and I still hear stories daily, that they believed in themselves for the first time, they had finally had self-confidence for the first time, they're going to go start living their dream instead of thinking it could never happen," King said.

Personally, moderating the panel, speaking with these legendary women who paved the way for other women across the nation to play collegiate sports, was an astounding honor. If it weren't for the fight for equality for women in sports, millions of women, including myself and those in my family, may not have been able to participate in and benefit from the sports we love at the collegiate level.

Prior to Title IX being passed, fewer than 300,000 girls participated in high school sports, with 32,000 women playing college sports. Thanks in part to the women who took a stand against the various discrepancies between men's and women's sports, there are now 3.4 million girls playing high school sports, with 219,000 participating at the college level.

As King said, there is plenty of work to do, including ensuring protection for everyone, of all backgrounds.

"Title IX is always in a tenuous position, so please don't take it for granted," King said, before voicing her opinion on its impact. "That's why every generation is important, and it's helped suburban white girls the most. So we need to, in the next 50 years, really, really step it up for girls of color, girls living with disabilities, trans athletes, [the] LGBTQ+ community. These are the things we have to worry about if we're going to do the right thing in the next 50 years."

Follow Kayla Burton on Twitter.

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