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Billie Jean King, Now More Than Ever

"We've still got so far to go, it's a joke," Billie Jean King said. "Sports are like a microcosm of society. [They] reflect where the world is in women, so we've got to figure things out."
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Title IX and Billie Jean King are the two reasons I seized the opportunity to compete on a varsity cross country/track team in college, though I wasn't born until about five years after they both forever changed women's athletics. Title IX legislation was passed in 1972 in order to ensure schools enforce equal opportunity for girls and boys both in sports and the classroom. Billie Jean kicked Bobby Riggs' ass all over the tennis court in the "Battle of the Sexes" a year later, and thanks to my mom, I grew up hearing all about how she paved the way for girls like me to play competitive sports.

Lo and behold, my two raisons d'etre--at least athletically speaking--collided at a recent event (Billie Jean was being honored at Glamour magazine's Women of the Year Awards, and I was there under the auspices of my freelance magazine job), and we got the chance to talk shop.

"We've still got so far to go, it's a joke ," she railed when I asked her what she thought about the current Title IX climate. "Sports are like a microcosm of society. [They] reflect where the world is in women, so we've got to figure things out."

Since Title IX was enacted, the number of high school girls playing competitive sports increased from fewer than 300,000 to 2.78 million in 2001. The number of female college athletes is now nearly five times the pre-Title IX rate. Track phenom Jackie Joyner-Kersee said it best: "Because of Title IX, I am here."

The reason Billie Jean was so pissed was that despite the incontrovertible evidence of its benefits for women (and, we would assume for our country in general), Title IX remains under attack. Its "proportionality" dictum says a school's sports participation in terms of gender has to be an equal ratio to its overall student body, because while generally the female populations of schools are at least equal with men, if not greater, women still play sports in much smaller numbers than men. Critics say this helps women to the detriment of men, because by being forced to comply with such statutes, schools respond by cutting men's teams.

I, er, cry foul with this line of thinking--if my experience at a NCAA Division I school is any indication, this is more of an athletic department budgeting issue than a Title IX tug-of-war. At most big schools, if just a fraction of the as yet untouchable football or basketball budgets was doled out more judiciously, we wouldn't even be having this discussion.

Not to mention that schools can also be in compliance with Title IX by upgrading women's sports from, for example, "club" level to varsity, or also by demonstrating a willingness to improve opportunities for women.

The warped nature of the whole argument dawned on me as I sat reading a stack of articles about Title IX, all of which passionately encompassed a different viewpoint. They all had one thing in common: an origination in the boy/male perspective. The girls involved are merely the by-product, the offal, of this contentious debate. Collectively, we--even feminists and staunch Title IX advocates and agitators--are socialized to believe that males have the inherent right to get everything, and get it first. Call it male-fest destiny. We can argue until we're blue in the face that there are alternatives to cutting men's teams, but the fact of the matter is there is no convincing people who hold their hands over their ears and say "nah, nah, nah, I can't heaaaaar you!"

It also occurred to me this is a problem in most discussions about gender. When the New York Times recently did a series on gender, serious attention was given to things like "Men Not Working, and Not Wanting Just Any Job" and "Small Colleges, Short of Men, Embrace Football". I'm certainly not saying women never take center stage. However, in conjunction with these types of male-centric discussions, when something as vital and as clearly beneficial as Title IX falls under attack, it's indicative of an overall systemic failure.

It's so puzzling: women outnumber men, population-wise, and more of us graduate from college than men, yet we play fewer sports, earn far less, and hold a mere fraction of the political power in our country, among countless other deficits. Billie Jean also told me, "Women think very horizontally about power. Men think about being CEO of a company. Everyone gets behind him and that's it."

Now, then, what can we women do about it? For one thing, by simply recognizing, like Billie Jean did, that we have--and more importantly can use--power, too. Or more controversially, as Laura Kipnis puts it in The Female Thing, we need to acknowledge "the collaborator within," and stop blaming men for having more power than us, instead giving weight to the role we play in keeping ourselves subjugated.

Sports are the best way, early on, to taste the thrill that comes along with power, whether it ultimately translates to the political, sexual, athletic or academic spheres. When I'm in a road race and kick at the end, leaving the pack of guys I've been running with in the dust, or when I clean up against a man in a game of basketball, it feels really good. And maybe the victory is sweeter and the accomplishment greater because I've been taught by society he's fundamentally better or more important than me, but regardless, I carry that feeling with me into my social and professional lives.

We women need to experience more of that power, if for nothing else than the boost of adrenaline that accompanies it. If, like Billie Jean says, sports are a microcosm, our struggle for equality becomes less about something like Title IX and more about how we see the world. I say practice makes perfect.