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Armour: Sport a Game-Changer for Progress Made by Women

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Arizona Cardinals assistant linebackers coach Jen Welter talks with line judge Sarah Thomas as Cardinals team president Michael Bidwill, left, watches prior to an NFL preseason football game between the Cardinals and the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

By Nancy Armour |

Title IX’s original intent was to open the doors of higher education to women.

It wound up creating a pathway to equality.

As USA TODAY celebrates the “Women of the Century,” it’s impossible to overstate the role sports have played in where women are today. Sports have made us confident and taught us determination. They’ve given us the courage to take risks and ask for more – from ourselves and others.

They have changed the way we see ourselves, and the way the world sees us.

“I’m always grateful that, of all the cultural institutions to break down, the first was sports,” Donna Lopiano, who worked with Edith Green, Patsy Mink and Birch Bayh on the passage of Title IX and then served as the CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation from 1992 to 2007, told me last year after Bayh died.

“… (Because) it wasn’t about sports. It was about everything that was required to access and wield power.”

In 1972, the year Title IX passed, fewer than 300,000 girls played high school sports, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Within two years, it had jumped to 1.3 million. In the 2018-19 school year, the most recent available, the number was 3.4 million.

Multiple studies have shown that girls who play sports are healthier, do better in school and have higher graduation rates. They’re also less likely to use drugs or be sexually active as teenagers.

But it’s the lessons we’ve learned through sports – dedication, self-discipline, focus, leadership, teamwork, assertiveness – that make an impact far beyond the playing fields.

A 2015 survey by Ernst and Young and ESPNW found that 94 percent of female corporate executives had played sports. The same study found that wages of women who played sports were 7 percent higher than women who didn’t.

When Fortune surveyed those on its list of most powerful women in 2017, 20 of the 31 who responded – 65 percent – had played sports in high school or college.

Now, not every girl or young woman is going to become a CEO or a business magnate. But the affirmation a girl gets from winning a game is what makes her believe she can be an astronaut someday. The pride she takes from seeing her training translate into improvement is what makes her recognize her value and refuse to accept less than she is worth. The hunger she feels after coming up short is what gives her the resilience to make a better life for herself and her family.

All those things the women who fought for our right to vote a century ago envisioned? Sports has helped us make them a reality.

“We’re serving as a catalyst for women in the workplace, for women in sport,” Nneka Ogwumike, forward for the Los Angeles Sparks and president of the WNBA’s players association, told USA TODAY’s Changing the Game podcast.

“And I’m very proud of that,” Ogwumike said. “I’m just really hoping that what we’re doing now is something that a lot of people will read back in history books and say, `You know, the WNBA is where a lot of stuff started,’ whether it’s for our sport or our communities.”

Sports has also helped us reframe our narrative. No one can watch Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and the rest of the U.S. women’s team and think women are meek or delicate. Simone Biles makes a mockery of the idea that women are weak or timid.

Watch, too, the respect LeBron James shows NBA analyst Doris Burke – because the boys watching the game sure are. And when NBA players say Becky Hammon is as good and capable as any other coach, well, it sure makes those who would scoff at a woman believing she can be whatever she wants look pretty silly.

The work is not over, of course. There has yet to be a female president and are still too few women, and particularly women of color, in the C-suites. Women still earn less than their male counterparts.

There are actually fewer women coaches in Division I than there were when Title IX passed, and there aren’t nearly enough female athletic directors or university presidents. Media coverage of women’s sports remains shameful, and the U.S. women’s soccer team is fighting for equal pay despite being four-time World Cup champions.

We’re still having to explain why it’s not OK to harass, demean and assault us, and fight for the protections that will prevent that.

But with every generation of girls who goes from kicking a soccer ball to kicking butt in business, STEM, academia, media or whatever career she chooses, we get closer.

“We owe it to ourselves and to the next generation to build a world that shows a more balanced world view,” Jen Welter, the first woman to coach in the NFL, told the Changing the Game podcast. “One that shows everybody, from everywhere, that they have the opportunity to be the hero of their own story.”

For women, sports are more than just fun and games. They’re a way for us to make the world we want to see, and make the world see us as we want to be.

This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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