When I was growing up in Long Beach, California in the 1950s and ‘60s, it never occurred to me that I would not be treated equal to my brother, Randy, and would not have the same opportunities as boys to succeed. I learned to play tennis on public courts and became a playground instructor and student-athlete at California State College in Los Angeles. I am a pre-Title IX athlete and did not receive any financial assistance for college. I had two jobs and thought I was living the good life. But nearby my male counterparts, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe, had full athletic scholarships to play tennis at USC and UCLA.
Four decades ago on June 23rd, the academic, athletic and professional fields of America were forever changed with the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This was a critical moment in our Nation’s history that I, and millions of girls and women like me, will remember and celebrate.
“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 37 words not only gave girls and women millions more opportunities to compete on an equal playing field in sports, they also empowered us to compete in any field throughout the course of our lives.
One year after Title IX passed, I accepted the challenge from Bobby Riggs, a former Wimbledon champion on the men’s tour. Bobby persistently pursued a match against me to be on national television. This challenge, known as the “The Battle of the Sexes,” was about more than just tennis. It was about social change, about women’s sports and women’s rights. A loss to Bobby Riggs would have probably been catastrophic for us from a public perspective. But I had to play the match. I wanted to change the hearts and minds of people to match the legislation. Girls and women can also be smart, fit and strong!
Before Title IX, there were five percent quotas for girls who wanted to be doctors. But now, it’s actually reversed. Fifty-four percent of the enrollment in higher education is women. Eighty-two percent of female business executives played sports, with the majority saying that lessons learned on the playing field contributed to their success.
Prior to Title IX, fewer than 300,000 girls competed in high school sports; now there are over 3 million. Title IX has increased female participation in sports exponentially. In response to greater opportunities to play, the number of high school girls participating in sports has risen ten-fold in the past 40 years, while six times as many women now compete in college sports. By the way, that increase has not hurt boys. In fact, male sports participation has also risen considerably since 1972!
Today, I am one of 27 million recreational tennis players. Tennis has given me my platform to continue my lifelong quest for equal opportunities for everyone. When I was 12 years old, I promised myself that I would fight for social change and gender equality.
Sports taught me leadership, perseverance, teamwork and how to play a supportive role on the court and off. It also taught me how to navigate in our culture. I use the lessons I learned from playing tennis every single day in my business life and in real life. Relationships, how to communicate, how to listen, how to notice body language…those are the nuances you learn on the playing field. The young women who play sports are more likely to graduate from high school, have higher grades, and score higher on standardized tests than non-athletes. Minority and underserved populations are more likely to participate in sports through their schools than through private organizations, making it even more critical that they have access to school-sponsored athletics so they can get the physical activity they need to grow up healthy, strong and confident.
But Title IX is not just about increasing opportunities for females. It has been a huge game-changer for girls and boys, women and men across America. But there is a lot of room for improvement and we still have a long way to go. There are 1.3 million fewer opportunities for girls than boys to participate in high school athletics and girls often still receive inferior equipment, facilities and scheduling. Coaching opportunities are also unequal. At the collegiate level, 43% of women’s teams are coached by women and only 3% of men’s teams are led by female coaches. Compensation levels and treatment across all fields are still not equal for women and men.
Obesity and health problems facing today’s youth affects us all and can lead to chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, asthma and heart disease. First Lady Michelle Obama is doing a great job through her Let’s Move! initiative to fight the childhood obesity epidemic by increasing access and opportunities for physical activity and healthy eating options in communities across America.
From a military point of view, we are in big trouble now. Many of our young men and women can’t even pass boot camp. They need a pre-boot camp to get through boot camp. So I often say that we’re all in this together and we need to help each other be the best that we can be. Each and every one of us deserves the best that life has to offer. That’s what Title IX represents to me.
We need to work together and help each other. We’ve got to continue to educate and promote equal opportunities for boys and girls, men and women. The health and security of our nation depends on it!
For more information about Title IX and to learn more about how you can get involved, visit www.fitness.gov.
Billie Jean King, Social Activist and Member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition