Title IX 50 years later: A seed that has sprung into 'amazing forest'

The game is long forgotten, even by those who were there. On a chilly night in January 1984 in eastern Pennsylvania, Moravian hosted Lehigh in a women’s basketball game. It was just one game on one night on one college campus. But who played in it, and who coached, is part of the much larger picture of one of the most meaningful laws and cultural revolutions this nation has ever produced. 

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX on Thursday is to celebrate the millions of female athletes who have been allowed and encouraged to take over the fields and courts of this nation, playing, running, hitting, scoring. And it’s also about celebrating what they learned, how they grew and what they became. 

Muffet McGraw almost cut the point guard who led her Lehigh team to victory against Moravian, 83-67, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, that night nearly 40 years ago. It was a season earlier, McGraw’s first as Lehigh’s head coach, the beginning moments of a stellar career that would lead to two NCAA titles and nine Final Four appearances in 33 seasons at Notre Dame. 

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TITLE IX:Here's how I've benefitted from Title IX's growing influence over the past 50 years

As McGraw looked over the young women who had assembled for her tryouts in the fall of 1982, she noticed a freshman who was wearing sneakers with socks that had a little ball on the back. These were tennis socks, and McGraw couldn’t believe someone was wearing them on a basketball court.

“Oh my god, we should cut her right now,” McGraw muttered to one of her assistant coaches. 

The woman who was almost cut laughs at the story every time it’s told. “I always tell Muffet, if you had cut me I’d never be the commissioner of the WNBA today.”

Cathy Engelbert, awarding the Storm's Breanna Stewart the MVP trophy, became one of the highest-ranking women in sports when she took over the WNBA in 2019.

The athlete with the cute socks was Cathy Engelbert, the first female CEO at Deloitte who in 2019 became one of the highest-ranking women in sports when she took over the WNBA. 

Engelbert scored 12 points that night. (We know this not because anyone remembers, but because the local newspaper, The Morning Call, covered the game.) 

On the other side of the court, Moravian was led by senior Chris Julius, who scored 16 points. 

“I was 5-9 and I played center, believe it or not,” she said recently. “I used my elbows and my hips. We had taller girls on the team but I wanted the ball.”

To this day, she is driven to compete. “If you ask my family who the most competitive person is, they’re going to say mom is.”

This is significant because Julius ended up marrying a Lehigh baseball player named Shawn Spieth. They have three children, one of whom took up golf. 

“Sports has always been my life,” Jordan Spieth’s mother said in a recent interview. “I don’t remember struggling as a woman because my dad treated me and my five siblings as if we could do anything in sports. Then when we started having our kids, it was sports, sports, sports. It flowed right through both me and my husband to our kids.”

That was just one basketball game on one night a very long time ago, yet it also was and is so much more. It is a piece of the enduring national story of Title IX, a piece of a puzzle, if you will, among thousands of others that interlock to form a uniquely American portrait.  

For 50 years, Title IX has allowed the other 50% of our population to play sports in a massive and meaningful way, to become teammates, to learn how to win and, even more important, to learn how to lose. It told girls and women, yes, you can play sports just like your fathers and brothers have for generations, and you can take those lessons learned through sports with you for the rest of your life.

That Muffet McGraw coached from the sidelines while the future WNBA commissioner and the future mother of a top U.S. professional golfer played on the court in front of her is a story that can be told only because of that law.

U.S. professional golfer Jordan Spieth's mother, Mary Christine Spieth, second from left, played college basketball and says she is the most competitive person in their family.

The 'Ah-ha moment' in 1999

Donna de Varona had a day job that kept her very busy. A double Olympic swimming gold medalist at 17 at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, she became one of the first women to cover sports on national TV when she signed with ABC not long after those Games, appearing for decades from the Olympics and on ABC’s signature “Wide World of Sports.”

But she also played another role in the ’70s. And ’80s. And ’90s. And into the 21st century. When college sports leaders and football coaches and wrestling coaches and legislators and even one president (George W. Bush) tried to weaken or even eliminate Title IX, she led the charge to protect it. 

As the co-founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation with Billie Jean King, and its first president, she found a second home on Capitol Hill, striding through the halls of Congress, working with allies such as the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to ensure that girls and women would not lose the opportunity to play sports.

That work was often done behind the scenes, a far cry from her job in front of the camera. Watching those ABC broadcasts, taking it all in, especially Olympic moments such as the 1980 “Miracle on Ice," was a young athlete in Minnesota whose life has spanned the entirety of Title IX. 

Briana Scurry blocks a penalty shootout kick by China's Ying Liu during overtime of the Women's World Cup Final at the Rose Bowl.

Born in September 1971, less than a year before Title IX became law, Briana Scurry cherished the Olympic Games, with de Varona part of the broadcast team. She fell in love with soccer and eventually was playing goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s national team. She won the first of her two gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where women’s soccer made its debut and the U.S.-China gold-medal match drew 76,481 spectators at Georgia’s Sanford Stadium. 

That eye-popping crowd size gave the leaders of the 1999 Women’s World Cup an idea. Instead of playing games in small- and mid-size stadiums, they would go big, playing in the country’s largest stadiums. And, as it turned out, fans would fill those stadiums, including the 90,185 who came to the Rose Bowl on July 10, 1999, when Scurry made the penalty-kick save against China that allowed Brandi Chastain to win the game minutes later, ripping off her shirt in a celebration that became the most famous photo of Title IX’s first 50 years. The team made the covers of Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and People in the same week, the only story, news or sports, ever to hit for the cycle like that. 

The chair of the 1999 Women’s World Cup spent months traveling the country promoting the event, encouraging media coverage, talking about how important the competition was going to be. She often said it might become the biggest event in the history of women’s sports other than an Olympic Games. It turned out that she was right. 

That chair? Donna de Varona. 

“The success of the Women’s World Cup is that Title IX goes from a trickle to a rushing, roaring river,” Scurry said. “We see companies wanting to get into the women’s sports business. Nike’s women’s division is created around that same time. Now we have Lululemon and Athleta and so many companies like that. There is a huge and growing industry around women’s sports

“When Brandi took off her shirt, we saw how muscular she was. There was power in those muscles. That was different and new. So were the soccer moms on the team, and what they meant. My teammates Carla Overbeck and Joy Fawcett had kids when they played. People saw that mothers could be heroes not just in their households, but on the field.”

Chastain never tires of talking about what happened 23 years ago.

“How important was the Women’s World Cup to Title IX? It was the ‘Ah-ha’ moment. Ninety-thousand in the Rose Bowl, 40 million more watching at home. It was this watershed moment for a lot of us who understood Title IX and knew what it could lead to. We could take a moment from that excitement, we could say wow. But this was not born of some spontaneous moment. This was decades in the making.”

After the World Cup, Chastain traveled to South Dakota to speak with sports officials. “They told me they had had 100 girls who were interested in playing soccer before,” Chastain said. “Then, after the World Cup, they had 10,000 girls interested in playing soccer. 

“Whoa, that blew my mind. It’s not like those kids didn’t exist. They existed. It was just that nobody there had really understood the need or the want or the impact of what participation meant in that environment. They might not be saying that it was because of Title IX. But it was.”

'I knew I was more than a coach'

Susan Shifflett knew what was coming too, because she was living it. She had come to Langley High School in McLean, Virginia, in 1986 to teach physical education and be an athletic trainer, and convinced the school to start a girls’ volleyball program in 1998. 

“A handful of girls came to me and said, 'We want to play volleyball.' They knew I had played in college, so they said, ‘Can you coach us?’ "

She’s still there, having won two state titles and many awards and honors for herself and her players, as well as sending at least 40 women to play in college and dozens onto careers in leadership roles in sports, business and the community.  

Tears well in her eyes to this day when she talks about watching the Women’s World Cup with her then-9-year-old daughter Megan. She and her husband even bought tickets when the U.S. team came to Washington for its quarterfinal match against Germany. 

“The only time you could watch women participate in sports on TV when I was growing up was during the Olympics, so to see what happened that summer was incredible,” Shifflett said. “Even though the World Cup was about soccer, it was really about everything. It was about watching your wildest dreams come true.”

It was the start of something big for Carmen Armstrong Jackson as well. In May 1999, Jackson, the girls’ track and field coach at Northwestern High School in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, won her first state title. She has now won 18, including just this spring. She has sent a half dozen women to the Olympics or world championships, well over 100 to play in college and many more to careers that, in Jackson’s words, “most inner-city girls could have never imagined.” One of her sprinters went on to run at Ohio State, then continued her education. That woman, Dr. Bridgette Tate-Wyche, is now the principal at Northwestern High. 

“She’s one of at least four high school principals who I coached,” Jackson said. "She’s now my boss, but we know I’ll always be her head coach.” 

Jackson knows she was given a unique vantage point from which to watch the changes Title IX was bringing to the nation. 

“When you’re coaching high school, you’re in the trenches,” Jackson said. “You can see what’s happening first. Coming off the Women’s World Cup, and the 1996 Atlanta Olympics too, which highlighted women in so many sports, I could get more girls to come out for sports. I think it was just a mood in the country. You could see it in women’s track, in women’s basketball, with the start of the WNBA, you really could feel the change. Across the state, I could see more girls and women coming out for sports, for track and field and basketball in particular.” 

Jackson and Shifflett knew they were more than coaches to their athletes. They were role models, female role models, often a rarity on the high school sports landscape.

“For them to see women as mentors,” Jackson said, “to walk the walk and display what it is to be a rising female in the world today, that was important to me. I knew I was more than a coach. I was representing something to them, and they could see that.”  

When Shifflett started coaching at Langley, the district volleyball coaches’ meetings she attended were “me and mostly men,” she said. “Now, when I look around, it’s all women. Some of the younger coaches don’t think anything of it, but I sure do.”

And her daughter, the one she took to the Women’s World Cup game, the one who went on to help lead Penn State to three consecutive NCAA volleyball titles? She now is an assistant coach at Towson University, having followed her mother into the family business.

Women helping women

Muffet McGraw’s patience had worn thin by the time she sat down at the microphone for her news conference at the 2019 Women’s Final Four in Tampa. For nearly a decade, she was known for having an all-female coaching staff, even though she was quick to point out she had employed a male assistant coach for the first 20 years of her career. 

With the death of legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt in 2016, and the continued presence of male coaches at the very top of the women’s game, someone had to champion the importance of female leaders, so it fell to her.

Reporter: “How important as your career has gone on and we lost Pat Summitt, how seriously do you take being that voice?”  

McGraw: “Did you know that the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in 1967 and it still hasn’t passed?”

That was only the beginning. 

“We’ve had a record number of women running for office and winning and still we have 23% of the House and 25% of the Senate. I’m getting tired of the novelty of the first female governor of this state, the first female African-American mayor of this city. When is it going to become the norm instead of the exception? How are these young women looking up and seeing someone that looks like them preparing them for the future? We don’t have enough female role models, we don’t have enough visible women leaders, we don’t have enough women in power.”

For two minutes, McGraw went on a wonderful tirade for our time. 

“And when these girls are coming up, who are they looking up to tell them that that’s not the way it has to be, and where better to do that than in sports? All of these millions of girls that play sports across the country, we’re teaching them great things about life skills, but wouldn’t it be great if we could teach them to watch how women lead? … When you look at men’s basketball and 99% of the jobs go to men, why shouldn’t 100 or 99% of the jobs in women’s basketball go to women?”

“I just lost it,” McGraw explained recently with a laugh. “I had been doing research for a speech a while earlier so I had all those numbers in my head. But in the middle of it, I was saying to myself, ‘How do I get off the stage? What’s going to be the next question?’ ”

Soon, former President Barack Obama was retweeting a video of her comments. “That happened before I even got to practice,” she said. She received a note from Billie Jean King. A letter came from Hillary Clinton. “I keep that one on my fridge.”

McGraw’s words traveled far and wide that day. At Northwestern University, there was a lacrosse coach who heard them, but didn’t really need to.

Kelly Amonte Hiller, who led the Wildcats to seven NCAA championships in eight years from 2005 to 2012, was already well into practicing what McGraw was preaching, not only hiring women as assistant coaches, but preparing and recommending her players and former players to become head coaches as universities around the nation were reacting to the burgeoning national interest in lacrosse by quickly adding women’s programs. 

Her coaching tree includes 13 current and former head coaches in women’s college lacrosse, including at Michigan, Stanford and Southern California, and six current and former assistants. 

“There’s that connection, female to female, that you can’t replicate,” Amonte Hiller said. “I just think it’s really important for young girls to see women in a position of strength where they can make decisions under pressure, they can have hard conversations and be okay with it. We’re pushing the boundaries every year, and the more people that we can have in those positions that have that level of confidence and have that level of passion and are unapologetic about it, that breeds a whole new generation of people that will follow in their footsteps.” 

'Title IX is the seed in the forest'

The story of Title IX, now 50 years old, can be told in hundreds of ways. But as one woman’s sports story begets another’s, it’s perhaps best to focus on the connections, the interlocking puzzle pieces that create the beautiful mosaic of one of the nation’s greatest success stories. 

Briana Scurry has been alive for as long as Title IX has. Spanning these 50 years, and helping to give Title IX its greatest moment in the 1999 Women’s World Cup — which was almost exactly halfway through the 50 years — Scurry also has tried to put what it means into perspective. 

“Title IX is the seed in the forest,” she said, “and then from that seed grows a tree, and another tree, and another, and then on those trees, there are all these branches and those are all the amazing careers of millions of women because of Title IX. 

"Now we have this amazing forest, and all of us sprung from that one seed.”

Follow Christine Brennan on Twitter @cbrennansports