Title IX Changed My Life, Because It Let Me Be The Girl On The Football Team

Little Giants Icebox

This is not my photo, this is Icebox. My mother has apparently lost all of the photos of me in my football uniform. Probably for the best.

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.

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    • Lastango

      “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.”

      As far as I can tell, they didn’t have to let you. That means Title IX had nothing whatever to do with your joining the team. I’m glad you had the chance to play, but it seems it wasn’t the force of the law that got you there. Even if your local club was federally funded, programs can separate girls from boys in contact sports. Not having a team for girls doesn’t compel a program to mix boy’s teams.

      • Hanna Brooks Olsen

        Actually, it does. The club did receive some funding from the school district, and because there was no girl’s team, nor were there enough players to start a girl’s team, they did have to let me, because to bar me would have been discriminatory. We had a very lengthy discussion about it with the league beforehand, where Title IX was cited multiple times. Had there been any kind of push-back, or attempt to not allow me to play, that piece of language is what would have backed it up.

        But I appreciate your attempt to entirely invalidate my story.

      • Lastango

        I think you are misinterpreting Title IX. The legislation applies to overall programs, not individual sports if these are contact. For example, take a university football team. The law doesn’t compel the school to gender-integrate the team simply because there is no football team for women. In your case, the school district didn’t have to let you play on the football team specifically. The funding link integrates the club into the district.

        Suppose for instance that the local school district received federal funding and provided athletic opportunities in proportion to the number of boys and girls. Say that 53% of the students were girls, and they occupy about 53% of the spots on teams. A girl comes forward and wants to play on the football team, and only that team. There is no Title IX leverage here. They might let her play (and I hope they do), but Title IX is not decisive. Now, suppose that the proportions are not in balance. The girls occupy only 40% of the spots on the sports teams even though they are 53% of the students. A girl wants to play football. If the district says no, the district is protected by the contact-sports exclusion written into Title IX legislation. This girl could choose to bring a class-action suit to ensure the district raises sports participation by girls to 53% across all sports, but she still won’t be playing football even if the suit is successful. She can’t sue to integrate the football team, or create a football team for girls.

    • For Title IX

      You’re right, there are caveats to Title IX that involve contact sports, but your comment that “Title IX had nothing whatever to do with your joining the team” is straight up ignorant.

      Without Title IX, she probably never would have thought she could ask to be on the team, and without Title IX, the coaches and officials involved in the decision-making process likely wouldn’t have been concerned with giving her the opportunity (whether they were legally required to, or not).

      And more importantly, what’s the point of your comments? It seems like you just want to get off on proving that you know more than other people—congratulations! You’re able to copy and paste facts from other websites! Now pat yourself on the back and shut up, because it doesn’t seem like you have any other point to make.