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The Battle for Title IX and The Opportunities It Created

National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling writes about his father, Larry Sperling, who fought and won 40 years ago to ensure young women their full rights to compete in sports.

When my six-year-old daughter Nina is a bit older I will tell her in greater detail about the battle for Title IX and the opportunities it created for tens of millions of young women and girls like her. But I also look forward to her feeling a special pride when she comes to appreciate the legal battle her grandfather – my now 80 year old dad and attorney Larry Sperling – fought and won 40 years ago to ensure young women their full rights to compete in sports.

In early 1972, a woman in Ann Arbor named Judy Morris was distressed that neither of her very talented tennis-playing daughters would ever be able to play high school tennis.  While there was no girls' tennis team at their high school at that time, her daughter Cynthia and her doubles partner Emily Barrett were clearly good enough to make the Varsity Boys Tennis Team at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor Michigan. The problem was that in 1972 the Michigan High School Athletic Association forbid any girls from playing on a boys’ varsity sports team.  Judy Morris told my father it was probably too late to help her older daughter, but perhaps if they started right then, maybe in a few years her younger daughter would have the opportunity to compete. But my dad had no intention of waiting a few years. He flew into action, first gaining the support of the Ann Arbor Board of Education to support the young women playing on the boys’ tennis team.  But when Cynthia and Emily earned starting positions on the team, they saw entire opposing teams time and time again choose to forfeit rather than play against two young women.  And when the Michigan High School Athletic Association ruled that they were forbidden to play, my father took them to Federal District Court, where Judge Damon Keith accepted my father’s legal argument and ruled in Morris vs. Michigan State Board of Education (April 27, 1972) that denying a young woman the right to play high school sports on account of their sex violated their right to Equal Protection under the 14th Amendment.  Less than nine months later, the United States Court of Appeals, 6th Circuit, upheld their victory – though they limited the ruling to the right to play non-contact sports.  

This federal court victory was a couple of months before Title IX was to pass and some believe it was the first time a federal court had ever ruled that it violated the 14th Amendment  to deny  a young woman  the right to play a sport solely based on her gender.  Cynthia and Emily ended up starting on the Boys Varsity Tennis team and missed by a single match qualifying for the High School Boys State Championships.  (Even with the passage of Title IX later that year these types of battles continued. A decade later Tina Tchen – now the First Lady’s Chief of Staff -- was to win a similar battle in Illinois to allow a girl the right to play on a boys’ soccer team.)

Since Morris v. Michigan High School Athletic Association was brought and won 40 years ago, Judy Morris has passed away but she saw both her daughters play high school tennis thanks to her advocacy on their behalf and she saw Cynthia go on (as Cynthia Starr) to be an accomplished sports writer for USA Today and the Cincinnati Enquirer.  My dad has watched his grand-daughters Rachel, Natalie and Ana-Maria all excel in either high school basketball or softball. And perhaps most fitting, last year at the age of 79 he played in the first ever National Grandfather-Granddaughter Tennis Championship with his grand-daughter Jackie – who started on University of Minnesota Women’s tennis team and who thanks to Title IX and people like her grandfather never grew up thinking for one second that anyone would deny her the right to compete on any court she wanted to compete on.