Title IX, which turns 40 on Saturday, isn't about the watching, just the playing. Signed into law by President Nixon on June 23, 1972, Title IX mandated that "no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
In 1971-72, the number of women participating in college sports was lower than 30,000. Last year, it was over 190,000. (In that same time, men went from about 170,000 to 250,000.)
Pause for a moment and chew on that: It is six times more likely that a woman is playing a college sport today than the year before the Title IX mandate began. The numbers for high school participation are just as startling - 294,000 girls participated in interscholastic high school sports in 1971-72, about 7 percent of all high school athletes. In 2010-11, over three million girls were playing high school sports, about 41 percent of all high school athletes.
"Title IX obviously has made vast changes in the athletic field," said Terry Fromson, managing attorney at the Women's Law Project, a Philadelphia-based group that has taken on many Title IX disputes over the last two decades. "There is a lot more work to do. The numbers are not where they should be 40 years later."
One big lie exposed by Title IX is the idea that boys were always more interested in playing sports than girls. Growing up, I would have believed it. If I wasn't playing, I was watching, or trading baseball cards. I literally learned how to read by reading the sports pages.
I also grew up with some very good athletes. One high school classmate went on to the NFL. Another ran for Villanova in the Millrose Games.
And none of us was as dedicated to sports as my daughters and their friends. Not even close. Not even the future pro.
These girls don't watch sports much. They just compete like crazy, and train almost year-round. Boys train harder today, too. They all put their parents to shame.
Under the threat of legal action, high schools and colleges have been forced to acknowledge that sports aren't just for men and the most jockish women. Girls' teams fill to capacity, same as the boys'.
When you mention Title IX and women's athletics, there is a wide belief that improving opportunities for women, especially at the college level, comes at the expense of men's sports.
Certain men's sports are on life support. But go back to where we started, how college sports in this country starts with the spectator sports. That doesn't change because of Title IX. Fromson said a staff attorney in her office studied federal data and concluded that as of 2005, 41 percent of college budgets were going to football and men's basketball.
"Next was women's sports, then the rest of men's sports," Fromson said. "And those sports aren't making money, only the elite colleges make money. They're just putting it into facilities, staff, flying to competitions where other teams take buses."
While some men's college sports have been dropped as colleges scramble to make budgets, Fromson said, one study indicated that between 1988 and 2011 more men's sports have been added than dropped, with a "net gain of 1,000 men."
The settlement of a gender-equity dispute against Penn in 1995 was a milestone case in that it looked at many of the nuances involved, acknowledging there is more outside interest in men's sports and more direct contributions going to sports such as football and men's basketball.
As part of the agreement at Penn, more women's coaches were made full-time, allowing them to do more fund-raising, in addition to drawing increased salaries. Women's facilities were improved. The weight rooms for men and women were upgraded, as was the boathouse. No money was taken away from men's sports to do this. The funds were to be raised from the outside. The agreement made sense from all sorts of angles.
Of course, there is no equivalent of Title IX legislation mandating that you have to watch women's sports. Professional women's leagues have struggled to attract audiences. That's all right. Watch what you want to watch. I covered the landmark 1999 Women's World Cup in soccer but wasn't surprised to see the women's pro league that followed struggle for an audience. I love basketball but rarely watch the WNBA.
However, watching my daughters and their friends compete has been eye-opening and attitude-adjusting, and I'm thankful that by law they don't ever have to stop and turn the games over to the boys.
Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @Jensenoffcampus. Read his "Off Campus" columns at www.philly.com/offcampus