Did you ever see the movie Little Giants, where there was a little girl called Icebox and she was the girl on the football team? In middle school, that was me, except I wasn’t exactly the star player, and I played one year of flag football before finally getting to pull on my shoulder pads and play tackle. But thanks to Title IX, which turns 40 today, I got the chance to suck at football (and then, eventually, get better)–and it helped make me the person I am today.
Let’s take a moment to read Title IX, a key piece of language in the Education Amendments of 1972:
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 education program or activity.
Which seems pretty basic, especially to those of us who were born well after it took effect. But prior to Title IX, neither public schools, nor colleges, really had any obligation to allow women to participate in traditional male activities or classes (or the other way around–men could be and were been barred from typically “female” activities or classes, like sewing or cooking), nor did they have to provide equal funding.
Girls who were interested in sports were relegated to cheerleading (which, to be fair is is absolutely a sport, but not one that all girls want to play), and possibly tennis–but their gear was shoddy, their uniforms were worn, and their teams received, on average, just a fraction of the boys teams and activities.
I learned all of this when, at 10 or 11, I decided I wanted to play football. I was chubby, out-of-shape, unhappy with my body, and bored. I wasn’t good at anything other than school, and sitting in my room journaling wasn’t really doing it for me. I liked the game, I knew all the rules, and I’d spent years watching it with my dad and cheering for my brother, who played through high school.
And because of Title IX (I learned), I could. I could sign up for the local club sports league for middle schoolers and join and, because there wasn’t a female-specific league, I could play alongside the boys. They had to let me.
But they didn’t, it turned out, have to like it.
I was pretty out-of-shape as a kid, but I was a good sport, and I tried hard. That’s the first thing football taught me: fake it until you get good at it. Eventually, I did get good–but it wasn’t without a struggle.
The head coach, who was clearly not a fan of my presence and, I don’t think, ever bothered to learn my first name, quickly became the antagonist in my story. I didn’t fault him too much when, in the first week, he quickly relegated me to the Bad News Bears-esque B team, because I knew I wasn’t fast–but the fact that he didn’t even give me a fair shot was pretty irritating.
Built like a solid, Irish tank, I was every bit as strong as some of the wimpy kids who made first-string, and definitely more agile. And, though he gave me the option, I didn’t back down from trying out for center position, which essentially requires you to have the quarterback’s hand up your butt, even though I was pretty sure it was his way of testing my commitment. Was I making a feminist statement, or was I actually there to play the game?
Not that it would have mattered–either would have been a good reason for playing–but I was committed to the game. So I snapped the ball hard, and I defended the kid playing QB, and I silenced the voice in my head that told me I was too slow, too fat, too much of a girl. Because I had the right to be there. Some people decades before I was even born decided that.