Taking Flight

Taking Flight

How Title IX launched a revolution in women’s sports.

“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 receiving federal financial assistance.”
—Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972

American women athletes are now world-class competitors—in the recent summer Olympics, for example, U.S. women won 58 medals to the men’s 45. But it wasn’t always so. Just 40 years ago, before the enactment of the civil rights law known as Title IX, women and girls had limited access to playing fields and gyms. The post–Title IX explosion in women’s sports (the number of girls participating in high school sports has increased more than 1,000 percent since President Nixon signed the landmark legislation in 1972) has reverberated across generations.

While Title IX has not created a perfect world for women’s athletics (opportunities for professional play are still sorely lacking, for example), its impact has been huge in giving girls the benefits of sports participation—discipline, teamwork, and commitment.

Girls who play sports also have higher self-esteem, lower levels of depression, fewer eating disorders, lower rates of drug and tobacco use, fewer unplanned pregnancies, and higher grades and graduation rates, according to the American Association of University Women.

Three remarkable East Bay athletes—an Olympic pentathlete, an Olympic rower, and a top-tier soccer player—reflect on how Title IX enhanced their sports careers.

Leap forward: Marilyn King of Oakland competes in the long jump portion of the pentathlon in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, shortly after the passage of Title IX. Photo courtesy Marilyn King.

Marilyn King, 63

One day in the late ’70s, Marilyn King, head coach of women’s track and field from 1978 to 1980 at U.C. Berkeley, happened to spot two female athletes proudly comparing muscles in the locker-room mirror. It was a sweet moment for King, who, as a high school athlete, felt obliged to wear long-sleeve blouses to hide her muscles “so guys would want to date me.”

Growing up as an Army brat in the ’50s and ’60s, King, 63, says she found plenty of opportunities for sports and physical activity in Florida and California, where the weather encouraged an outdoor lifestyle and there were good after-school programs. But when her dad was transferred to New York state, she says, “It was a wasteland for girls’ sports. There was nothing. If your parents had money, you could join a private club and swim or play tennis, but that was it.”

Her determined mom found a track team on Long Island, and it was there that King became a standout in the pentathlon—a demanding discipline incorporating shot put, high jump, hurdles, sprint, and long jump. Ed Parker of the Millbrae Lions track club was known as one of the few coaches in the United States able to bring pentathletes to the international level, so in 1969 King came to Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), which would soon get its own women’s track team, to work with him. While there she won numerous titles, including Amateur Athletic Union pentathlon champion in 1971.

“I started weight training in 1967,” King says, “and it was three years before I saw another woman in any weight room.” But, she adds, once the male athletes realized she was serious about training, they developed respect and camaraderie. Most weight rooms had no women’s bathrooms, either, and King recalls an emergency moment when the guys cleared the men’s room so she could use it.

Alison Townley. Photo courtesy Alison Townley.

Hired as head coach at Cal in 1977, with Title IX already in place, she says she assumed that the men’s and women’s track teams would collaborate, or at least share equipment. In reality, not only did the men’s athletic department jealously guard its resources, but women athletes were not allowed to use the same weight room as the male athletes—instead, they had to wait in line at the university’s public facility.

“These were track stars with scholarships,” King says, shaking her head. “You would never put a male athlete in that position.” So she found a custodian with a set of keys and checked out every unused cranny on campus until she found one she could transform. King personally designed the space, secured the funding, and in 1978 opened Cal’s first women’s weight room.

After competing in the pentathlon in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, King was preparing for the 1980 games when a serious back injury from a car accident left her unable to train physically. Undeterred, she began rigorous mental training, using only visualization techniques for seven months—and, despite this enormous obstacle, placed second in the Olympic Trials. The United States boycotted the Moscow Games in 1980, however, so King did not compete.

Realizing something remarkable had happened in her dramatic recovery, King began to focus on the mental techniques that had brought about her startling performance in the trials. From this grew a philosophy that King calls “Olympian Thinking,” based on passion, vision, and action—the elements always present, King says, “when ordinary people do extraordinary things.” Today the head of her own Oakland-based company, Beyond Sports, and a motivational speaker for clients from Apple to Xerox, King turns the same skills to promoting world peace by equipping young people worldwide to “think like Olympians.”

Perhaps the most important legacy of Title IX, King says, is vastly enlarging the pool of role models that allows today’s girls to see what’s possible—and giving them the chance to achieve it. “I’m an absolute, avid believer in sports as an element in education,” she says. “What they learn in being dedicated to their sport will serve them the rest of their life.” —M.E.

Different strokes: Rower Alison Townley (at far left, in front of coxswain) of Oakland trains for the 1988 Olympics on Lake Washington in Seattle. Photo courtesy Alison Townley.

Alison Townley, 47

“I’m never intimidated when I walk into a meeting,” says Oakland resident Alison Townley, a two-time Olympic rower and executive director of a local nonprofit. “Walking up to the starting line at the Olympics—that’s intimidating.”

Now 47, Townley grew up in an athletic Minnesota family and played in a boys’ football league when she was 8 and 9 years old. When the league tried to tell her dad she couldn’t participate, he wasn’t buying it. “He said, ‘You can talk to my lawyer,’” Townley recalls—and she stayed on the team.

A competitive swimmer in her teens, Townley headed for Harvard when she graduated from high school in 1983, drawn by the Ivy League’s long tradition of women’s sports and emphasis on crew. Then as now, the Harvard women’s team rowed under the name of Radcliffe, even though the former women’s college and formerly all-male Harvard had merged their athletic departments in 1976.

“Before Title IX,” Townley explains from her home in the Oakland hills, “there were two boathouses [at Harvard]—one for the men’s varsity team, and one for the men’s freshmen and recreational teams. There were maybe a couple of racks for boats for the women’s team, but no lockers or showers for them. Women in the ’70s were proud of all they had accomplished and didn’t feel Harvard was doing them a favor by offering to share their name.”

Townley, tall and lean, went on to compete in six world championships and both the 1988 Seoul and 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Now the mother of three athletic kids—boys 7 and 10, and a girl, 13—she serves as executive director of Playworks East Bay, part of an Oakland nonprofit that brings sports opportunities, class game time, and cooperative recess play to low-income schools. “There’s so much you learn from sports that you don’t get in other places,” she says, “how to push yourself, how to set goals and work toward the goal, how to work as a team.”

Kim Yokers. Photo courtesy Kim Yokers.

Reflecting on the growing prominence of women’s crew today, Townley looks back to the passage of Title IX in 1972. But the amendment wasn’t fully implemented for years, as universities and the government hashed out what constituted compliance. Guidelines were laid down in 1979, but legal challenges continued through the mid-’90s. Once colleges were finally forced to provide equal opportunity to women athletes and had to balance the resources given to men’s athletics, Townley theorizes, adding the 20, 30, or 40 seats of a women’s crew team provided a handy way for schools to balance the football team.

“In the past 15 to 20 years, thanks to the fact that universities had to enforce Title IX, rowing has taken off,” she says. “The U.S. has dominated in international competition, and I credit that 100 percent to the fact that Title IX is finally being enforced.”

A skilled equestrian who practices dressage at Skyline Stable in the Oakland hills, Townley gets wistful when she thinks about one of her aunts, a talented athlete who went to U.C. Berkeley in the early ’60s, when women were not encouraged to play sports.

“I always felt she got left out,” says Townley. “If she’d grown up post–Title IX, it would have been amazing to see what kind of athlete she could have been.” —R.M.

Leading the pack: Kim Yokers of Alameda (shown here wearing jersey number 3) played soccer at Cal, followed by professional stints with the East Bay’s FC Gold Pride and the New York Fury. Photo courtesy Kim Yokers.

Kim Yokers, 30

Two years ago, Kim Yokers was playing professional soccer on the championship FC Gold Pride team with Marta, the top woman player in the world (like most Brazilian players—think Pelé—she goes by only one name). But the team folded in 2010 due to lack of funding, followed two years later by the league. Since then, the 30-year-old Cal soccer star flew East to play briefly with the New York Fury last spring, but is now back home in Alameda coaching new generations of players through Sutton Soccer.

Growing up in the Seattle area, Yokers was part of a burgeoning soccer dynasty (her siblings also played on college teams). She credits her mother for getting her into the sport—after an older brother took it up, mom Sally was so frustrated at the lack of similar resources for girls that she became a soccer coach herself, losing no chance to help her daughters develop their skills.

In many ways, says Yokers, a matter-of-fact woman who corrals her curly hair in a ponytail, things have improved. Today, athletic girls have much better access to scholarships and resources at the college level than those of earlier generations, thanks to Title IX. But once they graduate, their chances of making a career of their game remain much worse than those of their male counterparts. “People watch men’s sports more than women’s, and other sports more than soccer, in this country,” says Yokers bluntly. The smaller audience translates to a far less lucrative business, leaving women’s teams in a constantly precarious state. And, as David Halstead, owner of the Philadelphia Independence (a Women’s Professional Soccer team), famously told The New York Times: “I’m in this to make money. It’s not okay to lose money and for owners to stick around for the love of women’s soccer.”

Yokers, the captain and most valuable player of U.C. Berkeley’s women’s soccer team in 2002-2003, her junior and senior years, grew up with Title IX well established. A standout player in high school and heavily courted by colleges, she started 20 of 21 games in her freshman year at Cal and went on to garner numerous honors and fond memories.

But after graduation, she figured, her playing days were probably over. “The Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) had folded during my senior year,” she recalls. “Maybe I could have played abroad, but there wasn’t a clear path to making that happen. Without any clear opportunities, I decided to take a break.”

The hiatus turned out to be short-lived. In 2004, Yokers joined the California Storm in the newly formed Women’s Premier Soccer League and played with them until 2008. Next, she signed on with the Pride (who played in Hayward and Castro Valley) in the fledgling Women’s Professional Soccer league. Then came her most recent stint with the New York Fury.

“Title IX is a first small step in women’s sports achieving parity with men’s,” she says. “But in order for that to happen, a shift has to take place in people’s minds so they value women’s sports. There are no women’s sports watched on a regular basis, outside of the Olympics. I tell the girls I coach to watch women’s sports, but it’s not something they are used to doing or socially influenced to do, and it’s not that easy for them to find. There need to be many changes, including the fact that we need a TV channel dedicated to women’s sports.”

Bringing about that change, she thinks, will take a lot of role models—like her mom, who became a soccer coach so her girls could play, and inspire others in their turn. And like herself.

Today, coaching young soccer players via Sutton’s high-repetition training system, Yokers says, “I have had many moments where I see girls realize, and get excited about, their own potential in sports, and life. I don’t think this would happen if they didn’t see and interact with women who love soccer and who teach it—it forms a path of possibilities in their mind, I think.”

As for her own future, however, she says, “I’m at a point where I’m considering other things than playing—because I can’t just survive on playing! Maybe preventive health care, maybe medical school. Or dance.” But whatever she winds up pursuing, Yokers says, soccer has given her the tools to do it well. “I’ve absolutely been shaped by sport,” she says. “It’s my life. Thanks to sports, I can work with a team. Even though I don’t have real-world experience in a particular field, I can learn anything.” —M.E.

Mary Eisenhart is a writer, editor, and online community host who lives in a converted 1928 school in Oakland.

Regan McMahon is book editor of Common Sense Media and author of Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family Life in a World Gone Crazy Over Youth Sports.


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