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With Title IX, it's a whole new ballgame

By Leon Lagerstam, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

In 1914, the Moline High School senior class championship was as far as this girls' basketball squad could hope to go.

Today, with Title IX encouraging an ever broadening spectrum of women's athletics, the same girls might have competed for a state title -- like these UTHS softball players, celebrating after a regional tournament win.

Westmer School District volleyball coach Jeannette Neeld remembers how much she wanted to participate in sports when she was growing up. She had to wait until college for the chance.

Her daughter, Jenni Neeld, started playing volleyball and basketball in fourth grade.

One piece of legislation, Title IX, gave Jenni Neeld and millions of other female athletes nationwide chances their mothers never had.

``I was 10 years too early, or the program was 10 years too late for me,'' Jeannette Neeld said. ``I'm just glad I had a daughter who got the opportunities I didn't, and that there are people out there who fought to give her those opportunities.''

Title IX, signed into law in 1972, guarantees ``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.''

The complicated, convoluted legislation wasn't applied specifically to athletics until 1975. It still governs all educational offerings, but the most publicized and frequent violations of the gender-equity act occur in sports.

The U.S. Supreme Court currently is reviewing a National Collegiate Athletic Association decision to declare an Ohio volleyball player ineligible because of her graduate status.

In another Ohio case, Miami University coaches are fighting a decision to drop four men's sports to help cover a budget deficit and bring the school into Title IX compliance.

Another Supreme Court case, on whether school districts should be accountable for student-to-student sexual harassment, typifies Title IX's broad scope.

The Title IX spotlight shined on the Rock Island-Milan schools last year when a group of parents and community members voiced concerns about possible violations. They later filed three civil-rights complaints with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

District Title IX officer Sue Reading said she welcomed the visit by a Department of Education investigator and believed it helped Rock Island-Milan develop one of the better plans around for gender-equity compliance.

She, too, remembers what it was like for female athletes before Title IX. When she grew up in central Iowa in the 1960s, the only girls' sport she remembers was basketball, played in rural communities. She and her friends were more interested in cheerleading and other activities that supported male athletics, she said.

Lack of awareness may have caused the low interest in female athletics. ``As little girls, we didn't know what all the options were,'' Ms. Reading said. ``The level of participation and the desire to compete is greater now than it was in the 1960s.''

Women today are more aware of available opportunities and have better athletic training plans and facilities than women of her generation, she said.

Coaching also has improved, Ms. Neeld added.

Ms. Reading said her stepdaughter, Alicia, and ``a daughter of my heart,'' Ida McRae, were among Title IX's beneficiaries. One became a varsity tennis player; the other joined Rocky's first girls' soccer team. Ms. McRae now plays soccer in college.

The movement to add sports for women began slowly in the 1970s and gathered steam moving into the '80s, Ms. Reading said. In the 1990s, more attention was paid to monitoring programs and to surveying women to learn their interests.

One of the first changes triggered by Title IX was making gym classes co-ed, Ms. Reading said. Those met with mixed results. Contact sports were out, and other co-ed offerings were difficult at the junior-high level, where students were becoming more aware of their sexuality, she said.

``It's important now for all of us to keep a vigilant eye on Title IX, not because it's the law, but because it's the right thing to do,'' Ms. Reading said.

Ms. Neeld said she wishes more girls would use the opportunities available because of Title IX. ``They don't know what some of us went through, fighting for the right to play,'' she said. ``They don't seem willing to spend the time now on the athletic activities many of us fought for them to do.''

Rock Island-Milan student school-board member and cheerleader Nicole Clark knew little about Title IX before the Department of Education investigation and ensuing board discussions.

``I knew it had to do with sports and womens' rights, but I didn't know any of the details about it,'' she said. ``After sitting through the board meetings, I feel like an expert now.''

Discussions with mothers of her friends gave her a better idea of what it was like before Title IX. ``They never had any of these opportunities and wish they did,'' she said.

Locker rooms, facilities and storage areas for women are among the biggest Title IX problems left to solve, according to AlWood track and former volleyball coach Darla Peterson. ``But schools and gyms were built when we didn't have girls' sports,'' she said.

Statistics show the impact of Title IX. When it was signed into law about 27 years ago, there were only about 300,000 girls in sports nationwide, according to Joe Vermeire, Rock Island County regional superintendent of schools. Now there are about 2.3 million female athletes.

In 1972, only 9 percent of medical-school graduates and 7 percent of law-school grads were women. Twenty-five years later, 38 percent of med-school grads and 43 percent of graduating lawyers were female.

``Female athletes are three times more likely to graduate and have higher self-confidence and self esteem,'' Mr. Vermeire said. ``Eighty percent of them are less likely to have unwanted pregnancies, and 92 percent are less likely to get involved in drugs.''

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.