By Daniel Nazar
Title IX recently emerged in the news in a very negative story, with Yale University facing a Department of Education probe into sexual harassment of female students and the school’s failure to address student complaints. This has led to criticism of Title IX’s weaknesses and calls for moves to strengthenen it, and discussions about whether Title IX is effective enough. While debates continue about Title IX’s past and future, another story this week serves as a reminder of how much success the law has been able to have so far.
Earlier this week, the Texas A&M women’s basketball team faced Notre Dame in this year’s NCAA Championship final. The game was a virtual away game for the Aggies, with the final’s Indianapolis venue only a two-hour drive from North Bend and an Irish-dominated crowd filling the stands in Conseco Fieldhouse. Despite Notre Dame’s advantage, the Aggies pulled off a 76-70 victory to win their first NCAA women’s basketball title.
As the article notes, this is Texas A&M’s first championship in a major sport since 1939. But more significantly, this is the school’s first title in any major sport since the school launched its women’s basketball program in 1974. It’s the school’s first major sports title since passage of Title IX in 1972, whose mandate for equality in school programs prompted Texas A&M and other schools to create women’s basketball programs. This is even the school’s first major NCAA championship since the school began officially admitting women in 1963.
Texas A&M, which was founded as an all-male military academy, has its biggest championship victory in recent history thanks to its women’s basketball team, which would not exist without Title IX.
Even after passage of Title IX in 1972, and its imposed requirement for equal funding of men’s and women’s sports, it took a long time for Texas A&M to arrive where it is today. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the women’s basketball program suffered for funding and support, with players recycling the same uniforms, using travel bags that had to be held together with duct tape, and rotating through facilities in order to give priority to other sports. The program did not even charge admission to games until 1986.
Critics of women’s sports will point to the deficits that women’s sports programs run at top schools as evidence that they are costly and therefore ineffective. These programs may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year more than they bring in for their respective schools. However, blind reliance on numbers misses the reality behind the struggle: Women’s basketball is young and still emerging as a major sport. The first NCAA did not hold its first women’s basketball championship until 1982, over four decades after the first NCAA men’s basketball championship in 1939. With programs still being new, attendance and ticket prices for women’s basketball programs have been lower than established men’s major sport programs. These programs have not had the same amount of time to grow and establish themselves as men’s sports, and their success should not be measured purely financially.
Their success should be measured in what they do for gender equality, a major goal of Title IX, and this week’s championship game is symbolic of how far Title IX has brought things for many schools.
Texas A&M is a school famed for the sheer number of its traditions. Visitors to the school might be puzzled by the significance of things like the 12th Man, “Gig’Em”, their Yell Leaders, or Reveillie. It’s a saying among at least some Aggies that if something happens once at A&M, it’s an accident; if it happens twice, then it’s tradition.
From the sound of it, few in College Station believe this year’s Final Four victory was an accident, and the locals are already talking hopefully of winning in women’s basketball becoming a new tradition. This week’s championship victory doesn’t just help put women’s basketball on the map at Texas A&M. More significantly, the women’s basketball program is putting Texas A&M back on the national map in a way that its sports-crazed students and alumni are very likely to rally around and support, which should only help grow support for the program among boosters and alumni, increase attendance at future games, and help the program become self-sustaining economically in the future. The continued success of the program will positively promote both the school and its female students, and empower the women of the basketball team as representatives of the school on the national stage.
And in the meantime, the school is basking in the glory of championship victory for the first time since the Great Depression, and celebrating the women who brought it to them.
These are the fruits that A&M is harvesting now from the seeds planted decades ago by the foundation of its women’s basketball program and the hard work done to improve and develop it into the championship-level team that exists today. And all of that would likely would not have happened without the benefit of Title IX. While the Yale University story has shined a spotlight on how far this nation still has to go in terms of equal gender rights in education, these recent triumphs demonstrate what a success the law has been in transforming schools like A&M from denying women enrollment to being proud of how much their female students can accomplish.