Score one for opportunity

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By Optic Editorial Board

“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 educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
— Title IX of the Education Amendments Act,
signed into law on June 23, 1972

Last year two stories — one a tragedy, the other a triumph — were reported in this newspaper. It’s doubtful that either story would have been possible without a single law, passed 40 years ago this month, that’s well worth remembering because of its long-lasting impact.

First, the local stories. In November of last year, a plane went down in Arkansas, killing four people aboard, including Miranda Serna, 36, a native of Guadalupita in Mora County. A standout in basketball, initially for the Mora Rangerettes, she worked her way up through the sport to become an assistant women’s basketball coach at Oklahoma State University. She and the others killed in the plane crash were on a recruiting trip at the time.

As tragic as it was, her father indicated she was doing what she loved to the very end. Basketball, he said at the time of her death, was her true passion — something she picked up at an early age.

The second story is of Vera Jo Bustos, a West Las Vegas High School graduate whose own journey as a basketball standout came to fruition last September when she signed to play professional basketball in a women’s league in Greece. “I’m so extremely grateful that I have this sweet opportunity to continue my career,” she said after receiving her contract.

After stellar performances on the court at Adams State College in Colorado, where she attended on a full basketball scholarship, she had earned that “sweet opportunity.” And not unlike so many other opportunities for women, it’s rooted in a single law that became effective on July 1, 1972 — Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, a law that led to a more level playing field for women’s sports.

Title IX prohibited gender-based discrimination for any educational program or activity that receives federal funds. Interestingly, it never specifically mentions athletics, but that’s a large part of where it was applied, and it changed the world of women’s athletics as a result.

Essentially, the new law created women’s sports as we know it today. From the primary through secondary grades and on up into college, schools were forced to sink money, staff and resources into sports opportunities for girls of all ages.

But its impact has been far greater than that. For one thing, Title IX opened other doors as well. Law schools and med schools opened their doors more widely to women. According to a recent Sports Illustrated article, women earning law and medical degrees jumped from 7 percent and 9 percent, respectively, in 1972 to 47 percent and 48 percent in 2010. But the magazine goes on to call the athletic gains for women “seismic,” citing Women’s Sports Foundation figures showing nearly 300,000 girls competing in high school sports in ‘72 compared to more than 3 million girls participating last year. That’s not just a change on America’s playing fields, that’s a dramatic cultural shift.

Sports in America has a history of opening up opportunity for disenfranchised groups. Perhaps the most famous example occurred in baseball, when Jackie Robinson crossed to the other side of the color line and signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, leading in the integration of other professional sports and influencing the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. So when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs on the tennis court in 1973, or when Brandi Chastain ripped her shirt off after winning the women’s soccer World Cup in 1999, we weren’t just watching sporting events. We were watching historic breakthroughs. Title IX was a big score for women’s opportunities.