Some four decades after Title IX was signed into law on June 23, 1972, the Seattle Storm and the WNBA are thriving. A direct line could be drawn between the groundbreaking legislation, which mandated opportunities for both sexes in any educational program or activity including sports, and the existence of a professional women's basketball league in the United States. However, the path toward greater equality was anything but easy over the intervening 40 years.
Storm Assistant Coach Nancy Darsch knows. In June 1972, Darsch was wrapping up her junior year at Springfield College, where coaches and members of the faculty were active proponents of Title IX. They cheered its passage, but the impact of Title IX would take time. First, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare had to determine how Title IX would be implemented and enforced, a process that took three years.
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After battling for resources in the wake of Title IX, Darsch was on the sidelines for the WNBA's first game as head coach of the New York Liberty.
At that point, it was up to the pioneers working to expand women's sports at the amateur level to fight for improved conditions, wielding Title IX as a weapon. Darsch, then working as a teacher and coach in a public high school, was among those on the front lines.
"I actually filed a complaint with the school I was working for because of the space our girls' teams were being given for practice and storage, showers and everything else," Darsch recalled. "The town did look into it and did make some changes from it."
By the time Darsch arrived at the University of Tennessee as a graduate assistant to Pat Summitt, colleges were beginning to recognize the need for change. Tennessee had formed a women's athletic department, and within a few years the NCAA would sanction women's sports and replace the AIAW, starting the process of gaining women's sports more visibility.
Still, there were unique challenges, like the coaches driving players and equipment and vans for road trips. Darsch remembers a delicate process of trying to add resources without alienating the rest of the athletic department.
"I think there were a lot of sensitive subjects and people who had to do negotiating and some politicking," she said. "You didn't want to create bad feelings, ill will; you wanted to go in and have it to be a good working environment for the players, and sharing a training room, sharing a weight room, was very different.
"I do think strides were made. New offices were built. Staff was added. Travel was increased. Recruiting budgets were created - because back then there wasn't a lot of recruiting back then. I think in the long run, things ended up very well there."
The effect of Title IX, and the generations that came before them, meant players like Katie Smith and Tina Thompson could grow up always expecting to have the opportunity to play basketball in college if they were talented enough. They did not entirely understand the ramifications of Title IX until they reached college, when Thompson dealt first-hand with the question of inequality. The coach who recruited her to USC, Marianne Stanley (now an assistant for the Washington Mystics), was replaced by Cheryl Miller after filing a sex-discrimination lawsuit because she was paid less than male counterpart George Raveling.
"I think that I as well as most of my teammates got a true understanding of what it meant," said Thompson. "Although for us it was sports-related, for her it was business."
Smith, who played under Darsch at Ohio State, found events a way to learn more about Title IX. The 20th anniversary of the legislation came during her senior year of high school.
"Then you put it together that this wasn't that long that we've had these opportunities," she said, "and a lot of women went through a lot of things to be able to play themselves, but also for us to have these opportunities."
For the generation of players including Smith and Thompson, the barrier was playing professional basketball at home. Although multiple efforts had been made at a professional league - including the Women's Pro Basketball League (WBL), which lasted three seasons from 1978-81 - none had been able to last, forcing players to head overseas after graduating college.
"A lot of women went through a lot of things to be able to play themselves, but also for us to have these opportunities."
That changed with the inception of the ABL in the fall of 1996, followed by the WNBA in the summer of 1997. The timing worked perfectly for Smith and Thompson, who were both part of their respective leagues' inaugural seasons - Smith in the ABL, playing for Storm Head Coach Brian Agler with the Columbus Quest, and Thompson as the No. 1 pick of the first WNBA Draft by the Houston Comets.
"We all were just so happy to have a league and a league that was affiliated with the NBA and gave it so much credibility and exposure," said Darsch, who also helped found the WNBA as the first head coach of the New York Liberty. "For so many of our players that were playing overseas for years to be able to come back and play professionally at home and on TV was just huge."
Having celebrated its 15th anniversary a year ago, the WNBA is the longest running professional sports league in American history. The WNBA's longevity stands in contrast to the difficulty sustaining professional women's soccer and softball leagues. Yet there is still work to be done. The pioneers aren't satisfied.
"The WNBA, to me, is a step in the right direction, but the WNBA is still young," said Thompson. "We're 16 years young. For women's basketball or women's sports in general, you can say the WNBA is a success because we are the most successful women's league, but as compared to sports leagues in general, we have a long way to go. That's why we're still here and we're still doing the necessary things to keep the WNBA alive and make people more aware of it."
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Smith and Thompson want to make sure that the league they've helped build stays around for decades to come.
Looking forward to the next 40 years, and the 80th anniversary of Title IX, the principles hope first of all that the gains made over the last four decades aren't lost. Title IX has been challenged during that time, most recently when President George W. Bush called a Commission on Opportunities in Athletics to study Title IX in 2002. The only substantive change, which allowed schools to use surveys to determine interest in various sports among the sexes, was reversed in 2010 under the administration of President Barack Obama.
Nonetheless, supporters worry that women's sports at the amateur level could be at risk as states tighten their budgets and athletic departments face difficult choices.
"At what point do you start picking and choosing where the money goes?" asked Darsch. "My hope is that doesn't happen, that we kind of hold our own, and instead of going backwards that we actually go forward and have more women's sports teams making money and generating revenue and being on television - not because of Title IX but because we're good enough."
"I just hope that we continue to have the same opportunities," echoed Smith. "I hope we continue to fight for it and it doesn't get brushed away or taken for granted. I hope the WNBA is still here and it's still thriving. If it's more money, it's more money. If it's more teams, it's more teams. Whatever works."
Keeping up the fight will require new leadership as the generation that worked to take advantage of the opening provided by Title IX heads toward retirement age.
"I think it is important that we have people that can relate to that era and the lessons learned," Darsch said, "but as we all get older, that's going to also dissipate."
As Darsch points out, those who come after can never truly know what it was like to live through an era before Title IX. Nonetheless, awareness will be key to make sure that generations to come understand the hard work put in by pioneers.
"Most little girls are not educated on Title IX and don't realize that the reason why they have the opportunity to do the things they do is because of Title IX," said Thompson. "I think that knowledge would definitely change the perspective of how we view and how we approach these things in general.
"The more educated we are, the more women are actually fighting and taking advantage of the opportunities that are provided by them because of Title IX. If you take those opportunities and work towards a certain goal, then you're fighting the fight. You don't have to have picket signs."