Commentary, Local Commentary

Penny for Your Thoughts

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which bars federally funded education programs and activities from discriminating on the basis of sex. Interestingly, the simple, terse language of Title IX, authored by Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN), does not mention sports, but most modern-day references to Title IX center on women’s athletic opportunities. Title IX mandates gender equity in education and activities, a sea change from previous practice at the high school and college levels.

Two generations later, the benefits of Title IX were displayed in full force at the World Track and Field Championships, held for the first time on American soil. To my great delight, that American soil was Hayward Field at the University of Oregon in Eugene, my alma mater and hometown. Broadcast reporters spoke about the small-town atmosphere of Eugene — when I was growing up, about 50,000 people lived there; today’s count is nearly quadruple that and the Eugene-Springfield metro area is nearly 400,000. Eugene is known as Track Town USA, and Hayward Field is a state-of-the-art facility built especially for track and field events.

Today’s Hayward Field is a far cry from the Hayward Field of my college days. Then, it hosted both football games and track meets, in old wooden grandstands that usually were packed with fans. It’s also where I graduated; I still remember that slightly misty morning (it was Oregon after all), walking in cap and gown and heels from the Pioneer Mother statue to Hayward, a tradition for female seniors. The Pioneer Mother is gone now, pulled down by activists in 2020, and the Hayward Field I knew was demolished in 2018, to make way for the new facility.

The new Hayward echoes the outlines and sightlines of the old Hayward. Student dormitories flank one end of the field, just as they did when I was there, and athletes, as well as the audience, can see Spencer Butte, the foothills, and magnificent evergreens just beyond the iconic “torch” structure. A glorious setting, to be sure, eclipsed only by the performances of the world-class athletes who vied for championship medals last week. World records were broken and reset, some in the heats leading up to the finals.

Many young athletes inspired; others broke our hearts, but all demonstrated the hard work and sportsmanship expected at world meets. Athing Mu, from Trenton, New Jersey, held the audience rapt as she raced for gold in the 800 meters and Sydney McLaughlin captivated everyone with her 400-meter hurdles victory, followed up by a blazing 4 x 400 women’s relay anchor lap that added another gold medal to the United States’ record 33 medals.

The women, representing every continent, were impressive in victory and in defeat, same as their male teammates. What wasn’t readily apparent was what opportunities or challenges are present for the women athletes in those countries. However, we know that, in this country, the passage of Title IX opened doors that had been closed, or non-existent, prior to 1972.

As I watched the athletes running in venues very familiar to me (the women’s marathon route ran close to where I picked beans as a kid), I reflected on the few team sports options available to women when I was in college — volleyball, field hockey and swimming pretty much summed it up. Later, basketball, softball and track and field were added, but not funded by the university at the time.

Fortunately, that has changed, and women’s sports are on firmer footing today, but there still are many inequities — in the training room, the boardroom and the financial arena. It took a female Oregon basketball player to embarrass the NCAA last year about the treatment of women’s teams at the “March Madness” national basketball championships. And salaries for professional women athletes are laughable compared to salaries for the men.

The young women who wowed the audience at Hayward Field and television may not have realized it, but they are carrying on their young shoulders the hopes and dreams of little girls who may idolize them now, but may someday be their peers, on the track and off, thanks, in part, to Title IX.

Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]