Walking to the arena to watch one of the last WNBA games that Sue Bird would play, I found myself next to a woman wearing a Storm shirt decorated with the language of Title IX, the law banning sex discrimination in schools. We talked for a moment while she pondered what her life would have been like had she grown up with Title IX; it only passed in 1972. She said the only sport girls in her school had access to was archery.
While Title IX created a sea change and ended the practice of excluding women from college and post-college degrees, what most people think of with Title IX is increasing athletic opportunities for girls and women. When Title IX was passed, approximately 294,000 girls were playing sports. Almost 3.5 million played in the 2018-19 school year. Despite the growth, more boys play football than girls play the top two girls’ sports combined.
Given that Title IX passed approximately 47 years ago, it is no wonder that we are watching two athletic greats retire at 40: Serena Williams and Sue Bird. They are a part of a generation that has grown up with Title IX.
They are also a part of a generation that has pushed for the actualization of the ideal that fell too short. They fought against double standards. Williams is also a fierce advocate for the inequalities women of color experience, not just in athletics, but in every area of life, using her own almost tragic experience of giving birth to highlight the disparities in health care given to Black women.
Both women spoke out about pay equity in their sports. In the 2019-20 season, a player with no prior NBA experience was eligible for a $898,310 minimum salary. By comparison, Bird — one of the greatest players in the WNBA — made $134,600 that year. In 2022, Serena Williams made an impressive $35.3 million, but Roger Federer made $85.7 million. These numbers are not just their winnings. U.S. Women’s soccer finally won their battle for equal pay. Ironically, equal pay in soccer means the women’s team, which has multiple FIFA World Cup titles, Olympic gold medals and more, will finally get paid as much as the men, who have never won a World Cup.
Pay equity is one of the reasons that women’s basketball players travel overseas to play. If we had pay equity, Brittney Griner would be free and not imprisoned by Russia as a political prisoner. As Bird often pointed out, the issues are also so much deeper than pay equity: It’s about media coverage, facilities and more.
As we celebrate these legends, we use their stories as inspiration to fight to actualize the promise of ending the inequities.
Read more of the Sept. 21-27, 2022 issue.