Column: Remembering a landmark civil rights decision

Shelter Island Coach Cindy Belt huddles with her team. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)
Shelter Island Coach Cindy Belt huddles with her team. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)

Title IX, subsequently renamed the Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity Education Act, was signed into law by President Richard Nixon 45 years ago on June 23, 1972.

Among the areas of discrimination in the United States that it changed was the downplaying of women’s sports at educational institutions.

A pioneer in Suffolk County in getting Title IX applied to sports for girls in schools was Eleanor A. Eckman, a physical education teacher at Bay Shore High School. Now retired after 31 years of teaching, Ms. Eckman was recounting the other day how school sports for girls were minimized while boys sports were being highlighted. “Not only highlighted but given more financial support,” she said.

“There was inequity,” Ms. Eckman added. “We had pitiful uniforms and pitiful time in the gym or on the field.” Moreover, there was more time for play for boys. “There were four shorter seasons for girls. Way back then they didn’t think girls could last as long as boys. It was thought that females didn’t have the physical capabilities.”

Further, at her school there was only one coach each for most girls sports while there were both coaches and assistant coaches for many boys sports.

“I was the first person in Suffolk County to bring the situation to the New York State Division of Human Rights,” said Ms. Eckman.

She brought the action in 1974 at the Suffolk office of the division, headed by Vera Parisi, formerly assistant director of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission. The division “found that the school district was not in compliance” with Title IX. And the district began making changes. “They didn’t have a choice. Either that or their having to go to court,” Ms. Eckman said.

A protest at a school board meeting was helpful to the cause, said Susan Barbash of Bay Shore. She and other girls in their athletic uniforms came to the meeting. Ms. Barbash, now a retired real estate developer, said, “The story became legend. The girl athletes appeared in their uniforms to protest the inequitable funding” between boys and girls sports. “There was theater involved.”

Title IX, added Ms. Barbash, “was not just about playing sports, but access to college, as well. It has been so important.”

Ms. Barbash went on from Bay Shore High School to Radcliffe College, which then merged into its parent institution, Harvard.

Today “everything is much more equal,” Ms. Eckman said. But there are still, she notes, areas of sports where a different situation exists for women.

For example, “In major competitions in tennis, the men’s game is best of three-out-of-five [sets] while for women it’s two-out-of-three.” Apparently there’s still belief that women can’t last as long as men in sports contests.

I reached out to current physical education teachers regarding their views on the state of girls and boys sports at schools in Suffolk now.

Todd Gulluscio, Shelter Island School’s director of athletics and physical education emailed that, “Although the most visible aspect of Title IX has been its contribution to the creation of many female athletic programs, its impact has been felt throughout education by providing females equal access to the course offerings, counseling and financial benefits among other educational items previously and exclusively available to mostly male students. I can only hope that educational facilities and their leaders follow the spirit of Title IX, not just because it is the law but because it is inherently and undoubtedly a part of our moral fabric and being.”

Jen Ackerman, a phys ed teacher in the Eastport-South Manor school district, said girls and boys sports are now treated as “equivalent.” A phys ed teacher for 19 years, Ms. Ackerman, of Manorville, said: “It’s come a long way.”

There “absolutely is equity” now in boys and girls sports in schools, said Shannon Judge of Southold, going into her 12th year as a physical education teacher in the Sag Harbor School District. Ms. Judge, who went to Centereach High School, noted she is 36 years old and thus as a student athlete in the post-Title IX era, fortunately “didn’t experience anything” along the lines of girl sports being second-rated. Boys and girls school sports have become to be “balanced completely.”

The legislation creating Title IX was sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Birch Bayh of Indiana, while Patsy Mink of Hawaii was its sponsor in the House. The law was renamed for Ms. Mink in 2002 after her death that year.

On the Senate floor, in advocating for Title IX, Mr. Bayh declared: “We are all familiar with the stereotype of women as pretty things who go to college to find a husband … and finally marry [and] have children … But the facts absolutely contradict these myths about the ‘weaker sex’ and it is time to change our operating assumptions.”

Title IX covers educational institutions receiving federal financial assistance. The U.S. Department of Education standards include “whether the selection of sports and levels of competition effectively accommodate the interests and abilities of members of both sexes; the provision of equipment and supplies; scheduling of games and practice times; provision of locker rooms, practice and competitive facilities.”

For schools that don’t receive federal aid, a third of the states, including New York, have enacted parallel statutes similar to Title IX covering them. But that’s only a third.

As to more that should be done now regarding women and sports, Ms. Eckman said that “in professional sports, women are still not paid at the same level as men.” Also, “I don’t think coverage by TV, newspapers and the rest of media is at the same level. It’s getting there.”

And, “in most sports they always have the finals of the men as the last event. The finals for women are the day before. The highlight is the men’s finals.”