As the commentators introduced the field for the men’s 100 meters, I found myself rooting for each one. Of course that becomes problematic because only three runners in the field would make the U.S. Olympic Track and Field team. But even the short blurb spoken about each runner underscored the difficult decisions each made to get to this point, to get to the edge of glory. It was Justin Gatiln who won the race in 9.80 seconds followed by Tyson Gay while a charge in the final 50 meters gave Ryan Bailey third and the coveted final spot on the American roster.
But it was what happened after that caught my attention. Gatlin and Bailey both brought their young sons on to the track. They went over to each other and encouraged the kids to high-five each other. It was a moment of jubilation and redemption and one they shared with the youngest members of their families.
I couldn’t help but think that Title IX helped make this moment possible.
The landmark legislation turned 40 over the weekend, so perhaps I merely had too much Title IX on the brain. I spent the better part of the last few weeks of my professional life researching, interviewing and writing about the current status of women in sport. With that comes some reflection. There has always been a backlash against Title IX and women’s sports. Women don’t like sports. Girls aren’t good at sports. Opportunities for girls take away opportunities for boys. Through both personal anecdotes and well-researched statistics compiled over the last 40 years, it is clear that sports are good for women and that women are passionate about sports. The lessons learned through athletic competition — whether you’re a preteen on a middle school team or a woman in her 40s taking up running for the first time — create strong, confident individuals who can then impact the rest of society.
And here is where Title IX has helped not just women gain opportunities but helped create new relationships to sport for men.
It stood out like a sore thumb to me while covering the St. Bonaventure basketball teams in the NCAA tournament this season. The men and the women were supporting each other. Glancing through their Twitter feeds the players would talk with each other offer Tweets which ranged from generic encouragement to basketball-specific information to items which clearly were inside jokes. Two men’s players drove from Olean, N.Y. to Raleigh, N.C. to watch the women in the Sweet 16. It sounds so simple and practical. Why wouldn’t the men’s and women’s team share their passion for the sport? But five or 10 years ago, the men would not have given much thought to the women’s game. They would not consider them equals in the athletic world. But that has changed.
Heck even college football standout Robert Griffin III of Baylor who won the Heisman Trophy, the ultimate award in one of the ultimate “manly” sports, was talking about women’s basketball star Brittney Griner during his national TV time at the NFL Draft.
If attitudes take a generation to change, perhaps we’re truly starting to see a difference in this current college generation who see “athlete” rather than “gender.” And that gives me hope.
Back to Gatlin and Bailey at Tracktown, USA. They are not the first male athletes to bring their children onto the playing field after a major sporting accomplishment. But I can’t help but wonder if women in the workplace of sports didn’t help make it acceptable to celebrate with your children in the moment. While women have struggled to be more than just their stereotypical roles — mother, wife, daughter, sister — maybe having them portrayed in those roles in the sporting arena has helped men feel comfortable in their own roles as father, husband, son and brother. Just as sports has opened up new identities and possibilities for women perhaps women in sports have opened up new possibilities for men.