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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Tomorrow, Title IX turns 40. The law banned gender discrimination in federally-funded schools and colleges and it helped reverse years of bias. The guarantee of equal access to sports was a small part of the original legislation, but now it's become synonymous with the law.

Title IX has its critics. Still, in the past 40 years, it has shaped many athletes' lives. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Even today, when Bernice Sandler beams with pride watching women athletes walk...

BERNICE SANDLER: With their heads up and feeling like, yeah. I can handle this world.

GOLDMAN: There's part of her that laughs, too. Back in the late 1960s, when career educator Dr. Bernice Sandler and the other Title IX pioneers said enough with sex discrimination in education, she really wasn't thinking about a sea change in sports.

SANDLER: And I remember saying, isn't this great news on field day or play day? That's a day when the schools canceled classes and they'd have athletic relays and games and stuff all outside. And I think, on field day, there's going to be more activities for girls. Isn't that nice?

GOLDMAN: Can you blame her for underselling? Sports was still a man's world and who could have envisioned July 10, 1999?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And it also means that the USA could win the World Cup on this next kick. Chastain will take it.

GOLDMAN: As Brandi Chastain prepared to take the last penalty kick of the 1999 Women's World Cup Soccer Final, she was not thinking about the moment as a watershed in women's sport, about the record 90,185 fans in Pasadena's Rose Bowl. No. Like any good athlete, Chastain was focused on the task at hand, made good contact with the ball, don't let the goalkeeper for China stare you down and psyche you out.

BRANDI CHASTAIN: The only thing I could hear - because those 90,000-plus people were so dead silent - was, don't look at the goalkeeper. Don't look at the goalkeeper. Don't look at the goalkeeper.

GOLDMAN: She didn't.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: The picture of a celebrating Chastain, shirt ripped off, fists clenched, muscles flexed has become a Title IX touchstone for women and girls and at least one six-year-old boy. Chastain's son Jaden sees the photo every day hanging in his house.

CHASTAIN: He used to sing cute little songs and, you know, Jaden is the silliest or Nana is the happiest and I would say Daddy is the strong-iest and he goes, no, Mom. You're the strong-iest.

GOLDMAN: It was anything but a straight line from Bernice Sandler's hopes for field day to Brandi Chastain's strong-iest moment. Along the way and in the present, there's been a kaleidoscope of characters and events weaving a Title IX tapestry.

GINNY GILDER: We all turned around, took off our clothes and stood there naked with Title IX on our backs.

GOLDMAN: In 1976, four years after Title IX became law, Ginny Gilder and her rowing teammates at Yale were getting sick. There were no shower facilities available right after practice and they'd have to get on a bus cold and wet. The men had showers, so Gilder and teammates staged a naked protest in the school's administrator's office.

Team captain Chris Ernst read a statement recounted in the documentary film "A Hero For Daisy."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: These are the bodies Yale is exploiting. On a day like today, the ice freezes on this skin, then we sit for a half hour...

GOLDMAN: The words and protests were persuasive. They got their showers. Schools that ignored Title IX got a reminder: Don't. And Ginny Gilder got something personal.

GILDER: You know, it was a certain outing of oneself to take a stand and there's no going back once you do something like that. There's no place to hide.

GOLDMAN: Hiding was never an option for Michelle Marciniak. She was an uber-jock as a kid growing up in the 1980s. Her only real competition in soccer, baseball and especially basketball was with boys until she realized she couldn't win the battle against testosterone.

MICHELLE MARCINIAK: There is a ceiling. I mean, just talent-wise, pure physical ability, strength.

GOLDMAN: Marciniak says it was then that she truly appreciated Title IX and the chance to keep excelling in basketball, which she did. She played for the Tennessee Lady Vols and Hall of Fame head coach Pat Summitt. Marciniak was the starting point guard on the 1996 national championship team. She went on to play in the WNBA and, today, as cofounder of SHEEX, a company that makes bed sheets out of athletic fabrics, Marciniak says she draws on her sports background daily.

MARCINIAK: There's not a man who I've been in front of in the business world that doesn't know basketball. I'll talk basketball as far as the day is long with anyone, you know, and I think there is a certain amount of respect that guys give you if you can talk sports with them. They're just like, wow. That's pretty cool.

GOLDMAN: Opening doors and closing them, some say Title IX has caused collateral damage.

NICK KNOWLES: Hello. My name's Nick Knowles. I am an ex-wrestler at Liberty University.

GOLDMAN: Liberty in Virginia is notable in that it has cut men's wrestling twice, most recently last year, when it was demoted from NCAA Division I status to a club sport.

KNOWLES: It felt like I had a sibling die.

GOLDMAN: It has always been Knowles' dream to end up on the podium at the NCAA tournament.

KNOWLES: Right away, that's what I was thinking about, that my last shot had just been taken away.

GOLDMAN: Nick Knowles is one of many athletes in so-called minor men's sports who say they've been bumped so their school can comply with Title IX's proportionality requirement that the percentage of female athletes equals the percentage of female students. Whether the cuts are Title IX's fault still, on its 40th anniversary, is a hot topic of debate, but it doesn't deter one of the law's strongest and unlikeliest supporters.

HERB DEMPSEY: Mr. Goldman, I presume.

GOLDMAN: Herb Dempsey.

DEMPSEY: Nice to see you.

GOLDMAN: Good to see you.

Herb Dempsey is on the job. I met the 75-year-old grandfather, Title IX crusader and self-described nasty old man in Battleground, Washington. We walked to the site of one of his many victories, and upgraded girls' softball field at the local high school. Dempsey pointed inside the covered dugout.

DEMPSEY: And then they have a place for their waters and they have a place for their gear, but it's a whole bunch better than it used to be.

GOLDMAN: Dempsey, a former teacher with some law enforcement experience on his resume, has made Title IX enforcement his latest career, or at least a very active hobby in retirement. He uses Google Earth to identify shoddy sports facilities. He's lost count of all the Office for Civil Rights complaints he's filed over the past 20 or so years dealing with girls' sports getting cut or shortchanged.

DEMPSEY: Everybody has biases. It's healthy. It's good to give us a value system, but when you use my tax money to enforce your bias and when your bias is a sexist pig's bias, then you and I are going to a barbecue pit.

GOLDMAN: Dempsey's fight continues and is emblematic of the challenges still facing Title IX after 40 years, such as the need for stronger enforcement, more sports opportunities for minority girls and women, ensuring compliance doesn't dash dreams for male athletes.

And then there's this. On the golf course the other day, I got paired up with a guy who, every time one of his putts rolled up short of the hole, he'd say, hit the ball, Alice, the kind of low grade insult that a lot of men never think twice about uttering. But really, 40 years after Title IX, it's out of date because it's a good bet that Alice is strong-ier than you think.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is NPR News.

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