COLUMN: Bayh's Title IX work cleared path for women in education, athletics

INDIANA UNIVERSITY Sen. Birch Bayh exercises with Title athletes at Purdue University during the 1970s. The photo is from the Birch Bayh Senatorial Archives at Indiana University.

I loved the joyful grin on my daughter's face after she'd finished a 100-meter dash or sank a free throw for her high school teams.

Millions of other dads have similar memories.

Birch Bayh deserves credit for those fond thoughts. The Vigo County native championed the cause of equal opportunities for young women in education during his three terms in the U.S. Senate. Bayh authored Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity at schools and colleges receiving federal funding.

Among other changes, Title IX gave young women chances to compete in a variety of sports, just as young men had done for decades in America.

For a Hoosier senator who was the only American outside of the Founding Fathers to write two amendments to the Constitution, the 25th and 26th, Bayh's Title IX affects more lives daily than most pieces of legislation. Last year, 3,415,305 girls competed in high school sports across the country, an all-time high, according to the National Federation of High Schools. On the college level, 44 percent of all athletes were women last year, the NCAA reports, compared to 10 percent when Title IX was enacted.

Bayh began work on that law shortly after his election in 1962 and didn't stop until its passage a decade later. In fact, he really never quit working on its behalf. Long after his Senate years, Bayh and his Washington law firm fought efforts to weaken Title IX. His role in that mission came to a close early Thursday morning, when Bayh died at age 91.

Personal experiences led Bayh to pursue the law that opened up those opportunities. During an interview in 2005, Bayh told me about two instances involving his own family that inspired that effort.

The first involved his dad, Birch Bayh Sr., who coached four college sports teams at Indiana State before moving the family from Terre Haute to Washington, D.C., where he became supervisor of physical education at the District of Columbia's public schools. After breakfast one morning in D.C., the elder Bayh told the family he'd been asked to testify to Congress about physical education. Then he told them his bold topic.

"He said, 'I'm going to tell them they need to implement physical education classes for little girls, just like those for little boys, because little girls need strong bodies, too,'" Senator Bayh remembered. "And that was such a strong statement."

Years later, a second incident affected Bayh's late wife, Marvella. She possessed exceptional academic skills, he explained. Nonetheless, Marvella received an admissions rejection notice from a University of Virginia program. The stated reason? "Women need not apply," Bayh said.

Title IX helped implement the plan Bayh's father advocated and righted the wrongs that his wife experienced.

It's also been the sources of controversy through the years, especially among supporters of men's athletic programs that don't draw large crowds of paying fans. Many universities eliminated men's gymnastics, wrestling and swimming teams, among other sports, and added women's programs to meet Title IX's "three-prong" test for compliance. Those prongs include proportionality (meaning the percentage of men and women competing in sports corresponds with the same percentages in the student body); historical progress (when the college shows a continuing pattern of expanding opportunities for women); and accommodation (fully meeting the interests of the under-represented gender, women).

Colleges with football programs struggle in meeting the primary prong, proportionality, because that program requires more athletes than any women's program. To balance the gender numbers, many colleges cut other men's sports, but retained football for its ticket-selling potential and interest level among the public and alumni. Large universities often choose to heavily fund "money sports" after dropping other "minor sports."

Bayh empathized with athletes, coaches and fans of those eliminated men's programs, but insisted the real problem was the choices made by the universities.

"My heart goes out to those wrestlers," he said, as well as the swimmers, gymnasts and others. But economic choices, not Title IX, deserve the blame, Bayh added. Young women deserve the same chances to compete as young men, he emphasized.

A few weeks earlier in 2005, Bayh attended the NCAA women's basketball Final Four banquet at Indianapolis. The testimonials of players, coaches and families there bolstered his determination to keep fighting against efforts to dilute Title IX.

"The number of people that came up to me and said, 'If it wasn't for Title IX, I not only wouldn't have had the chance to play intercollegiate sports, but I wouldn't have had the chance to get a college education,' was amazing," Bayh said.

Millions of daughters would agree.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or

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