Nancy Cole could not, in all seriousness, consider herself an athlete when she went to Northport, Long Island High School in the 1960s, not even when she was playing one of the four sports in which she was a standout.
"It wasn't even 'playing sports,"' she said. "You maybe practiced twice a week for maybe half an hour, then you played three games during the season. At the end, you went to what was called a 'play day.' There were, let's say, six softball teams there. You'd play three innings against one team, then three innings against another team. Then when it was over you'd have milk and cookies with all the other teams."
Milk and cookies just did not satisfy someone like Cole, who says she has a huge appetite for competition. She reflects back even further than high school, saying, "What really bothered me was that I would go to watch my brother play in Little League games. I looked at my dad and said, 'How come I can't play? I'm better than my brother.' He'd go, 'No, this is just for boys."'
It turns out there were just enough people like Cole, and just enough people sympathetic to people like her, to produce landmark legislation that would forever end American sports as a "just for boys" club. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, having passed through Congress, was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972.
Cole was a relatively new physical education teacher at Centereach High School back then. She had no way of foreseeing that she soon would be earning as much to coach sports as her male counterparts were, that she would send many of her athletes to college on scholarships and that she would win championships and be inducted into three halls of fame: National High Schools, State Public High Schools and National Field Hockey Coaches.
Now retired and living in Stony Brook, Cole knows that the legacy of Title IX is not seamless. She learned that hard lesson when she officially filed a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights on May 27, 2000. Cole wanted to have the girls team room at Centereach upgraded to match the one the boys had. It did not quite work out the way she wanted and it put a big dent in her popularity in the school community.
The fabric of American sports and culture changed with these words, from 1972: "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 educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
A study done by the Women's Sports Foundation reported that 40 years ago, 294,015 girls competed in high school sports. Last year, that figure was 3,173,549. "The Title IX thing totally, and I mean totally, changed that," Cole said.
The phrase "Title IX" has become synonymous with women's sports, even though the measure never said one word about athletics. It was intended as a rule for education in general.
"I think visibility is the issue," said Birch Bayh, the former U.S. senator from Indiana who is credited with having gotten Title IX passed in the Senate. "Sports have visibility. Only a small minority of the women population even participates in sports. It's just the tip of the iceberg. Think of all the women who are CEOs now, who never would have gotten into the front door of the office without Title IX."
Bayh considers Title IX an earthshaking and far-reaching victory. "It seemed to me that in a country that prides itself on equality, we could not continue to deny 53 percent of the American people equal rights," he said. "Now we can see, 40 years later, that has been rectified to a very great extent."
Barbara Winslow, an associate professor at Brooklyn College who teaches women's studies, recently published an article on the impact of Title IX in which she illustrated how far women's sports have come. She quoted Marge Snyder, who played on an Illinois high school tennis team that went 56-0 from 1968-70: "We were permitted to compete as long as we made no efforts to publicize our accomplishments and personally paid for our uniforms and equipment."
As landmarks go, though, Title IX is not among those often carved on cornerstones. Cole said, "We've been through two generations of people who, if you asked them, wouldn't know what Title IX is. And that's great. That's absolutely great."
Cole likes the fact that it is taken for granted, that the playing field is relatively level. She likes seeing girls teams at Ward Melville, where she coached after 32 years at Centereach and one year of officiating, have separate uniforms for home and road games, and that someone washes, irons and folds those uniforms. She got a charge from reading about Annie Park of MacArthur (which does not have a girls golf team), who won the Nassau boys high school golf championship.
In 2000, toward the end of her career at Centereach, she made a stand on the team room issue. She said that despite taking a lot of flak for her formal Title IX complaint, she did see renovations made to the girls' room. "I looked at it and said, 'They tried.' Everybody hated me already, but I do remember saying, 'It's nicer, but it's still one-third the size of the boys' team room," she said. "When I got to the end, I just said, 'Nancy, you made your point. I don't know if it was worth it.' Now, every once in a while, I think, 'I'm retired. Why don't I bring it up again?"'
DEBATE STILL GOES ON
Other people are making a completely different point about Title IX. As they see colleges trying to comply with Title IX, they see men's athletic teams being shut down -- Cal-Berkeley's men's gymnastics, for instance -- and they make a connection.
"Title IX is a good law," said Karen Owoc, co-founder of the Fairness in Sports Foundation and mother of two boys who competed in Cal-Berkeley's youth gymnastics program. "So often we're marked as the Anti-Title IX group and that is not the way it is at all. We just want to change the regulation and make it fair."
"It's an uphill battle," Owoc said. "Women's foundations are very strong and Congress doesn't want to touch this. They feel if they do, they're going to be labeled as anti-women."
Winslow and other Title IX advocates say the problem stems from an overemphasis on college football. "There's an assumption that there's a limited pie and football is not part of that pie," she said. "Do football players have to sleep in first-class hotels?"
According to an NCAA gender-equity report that covered the years of 2004-10, football received 82.8 of the 133.2 available athletic scholarships per year for male student-athletes at Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I) institutions.
If Title IX proved anything, it proved that even an uphill battle is not a losing one.
Cole, however, has seen doors swing wide open to people in these past 40 years. She has seen women enjoy the subtle but deep rewards of sports that men always have enjoyed. "The best thing about coaching is the relationships you make -- with other coaches, with kids, with kids' parents -- and the effect that you have on them," said the former coach who had the school yearbook dedicated to her twice.
Tracey Fuchs, one of four sisters who played on her Centereach field hockey teams, set a national scoring record, became an All-American at Connecticut, played in two Olympics and now coaches at Northwestern.
The Fuchs sisters and many other field hockey alumni are still close friends with their former coach. Around Christmas every year, they get together at Cole's house for a few beers, a few laughs and a lot of reminiscing.
"I'd like to think a little of that," Cole said, "is Title IX."