Time Out: January 9, 2013

Personal experience adds clarity and insight to our lives. That was the case when my wife and I shared a basketball adventure traveling to Pearl River to watch Mariah Ruff and her Oneonta Yellowjackets battle the Pearl River Pirates.

We had a blast watching a marvelous high school basketball game involving talented gals from both school districts. The girls on both sides of the court played with passion, played with intensity, and played with skill. Anyone who believes basketball is not a contact sport could not have watched these ladies do battle.

The game pitted two undefeated basketball powers; Oneonta, an upstate Class B, elite program against Pearl River, the pride of Class A girls hoops in Rockland County. Oneonta emerged the winner of the day, but girls’ basketball was the real victor.

Much has changed
Amazingly, only 40 years ago this game could never have happened. Girls simply were not offered opportunities to play. In fact, the game of girls’ basketball itself was shaped around the construct that girls were too frail to play a competitive full court basketball game, so basketball rules needed to be altered to make the game “safe” to play. In earlier times, six girls played basketball on each team, three girls from each team limited to the offensive side of the floor, and three who could only play defense. The full-court game with every girl playing the entire length and width of the floor was believed physically damaging, even impossible.

Dribbling was limited in the early game. Ball handlers were limited to two dribbles before they were required to shoot or pass. A defender could be penalized if they defended too closely.
In the mid 1900s some schools moved to a New Jersey version of six-on-six girls’ basketball. That model limited two girls to the offensive end of the floor, two to the defensive side, but allowed two rovers, girls who could play the game at both ends of the floor. That’s the model played at my school when I was in high school in the late 1960s.

Some would have us believe that government is only restrictive, limiting and bad. That was not the case for women and girls with the passing of Title IX, a landmark civil rights law that turned 40-years-old last spring. With just 37 words, that law opened minds, and opened a floodgate of opportunity for girls on basketball courts, on soccer fields and playing venues of all kinds, and in classrooms all around America. It reads, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation and be denied the benefits of or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving any federal assistance.”

Ironically, equality in athletics was not the primary focus of Title IX legislation. The words sport and athletics cannot be found there. Drafters of the legislation were more concerned that in many corners of our country, females who excelled in high school were prohibited by law from attending some universities and denied many of the same learning opportunities of male scholars when they were afforded a chance to continue their studies.

But, it was in athletics that Title IX pushback was most fierce. Athletics were a segregated, male-dominated domain when Title IX was passed. Laws are passed but enforcement can be slow and torturous.

Myths and attempts to demonize always accompany social change. Many predicted women would suffer physical and psychological damage by playing competitive team sports. “Females aren’t that interested in or let alone very good at playing sports,” detractors raged. Many predicted no one would ever be interested in watching a women’s athletic contest of any sort.

Monumental shift
Title IX legislation built a ball field for girls and they came. The Women’s Sports Foundation reports that in 1972 - 300,000 girls participated in high school sports. By 2011, that number had grown ten-fold topping three million.

The increase at the collegiate level over that time time span was not as pronounced but still increased by six-fold.

And, the recently launched NBC Sports Network reported that 4.4 million viewers watched the United States and Japan women’s soccer teams battle for this summer’s Olympic gold medal, the most viewed sports event, male or female, in their broadcasting history.

Title IX has brought an unprecedented explosion of participation in athletics by young girls and women all every level of sports involvement. Yet, for me, the success of Title IX isn’t simply a matter of statistics encapsulating who plays and who doesn’t. Instead, Title IX success is played out over and over again in real life mini dramas like the one staged on a basketball court in Pearl River where two terrific New York high school girls’ basketball teams went toe-to-toe playing the game that they love.