The 50th Anniversary of Title IX: Today and Tomorrow

By Brea Lassek

I will never forget when I learned that the United States Women’s Soccer team did not receive equal pay. I was in fifth grade and in the height of my (extremely mediocre) club soccer career. I idolized the likes of Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd and Meghan Rapinoe and spent countless hours trying to model my game after them. I even wore a singular strip of pink pre wrap as a headband for every tournament to channel my inner Alex Morgan.

So when I found out about the gender pay disparity between the men’s and women’s teams, I wanted answers and asked anyone who would listen. The responses were anything other than what I wanted to hear. 

No one cares about women’s sports.

The women’s team is nowhere near as exciting to watch– they’re not as physical or fast or talented.

The women may be the best in the WOMEN’S division, but if the men’s and women’s teams went head-to-head, it would be a much different story, so of course, the men should be paid more.

Or my personal favorite that many immature elementary-aged boys (and twenty-somethings in Instagram comment sections) pointed to: women belong in the kitchen! 

From a young age, these were the messages I was told. And they frustrated me. So I did what I would do so many times for years to come– I wrote about it. I laid out all the rebuttals, citing revenue, attendance totals and performance on the field. By the time I turned in my argumentative essay, I felt like I had made a difference. Maybe the head of the United States Soccer Federation wouldn’t read it, but at least, my words could change someone’s mind– even if it was just my classmates’ or teacher’s.

Looking back, this was the first defining moment of my sports journalism career.

Now, as I write this, I am a rising junior in one of the best journalism programs in the country and lead WNUR Sports alongside Andrew Neville. I have broadcasted NCAA tournament games, traveled to some of the best venues in college athletics and interviewed countless players and coaches.

A lot has happened for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team since then as well. This year, the U.S. Soccer Federation and the team came to a historic agreement to equalize pay between the men’s and women’s teams.

None of this would be possible without Title IX. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark legislation that made sex-based discrimination illegal in any school or education program receiving federal funding. Although not directly tied to sports, Title IX played a large role in expanding women’s athletics nationwide.

Many people will describe today as a celebration, and in part, they aren’t wrong. After all, Title IX has created opportunities for generations of women in sports, from the high school to the professional level. 

In the past year, there have been so many firsts for women in sports, especially in front office and coaching positions. Rachel Balkovec of the New York Yankees, Alyssa Nakken of the San Francisco Giants and Kim Ng of the Miami Marlins are just a few women breaking barriers in baseball, and Northwestern’s own Katie Krall is now a development coach in the Red Sox organization. 

Title IX has not only grown women’s sports but also dramatically changed the projection for women in sports media, something we do not take for granted at WNUR Sports. Because of Title IX, female reporters are allowed in locker rooms. We are able to cover men’s and women’s sports using any medium we want, from play-by-play broadcasting to writing to recording podcasts.

Today, and every day, I am proud to be a woman in sports media. With that being said, there is still so much progress to be made. 

Yes, we are allowed to have a voice. But that doesn’t mean we’re always respected.

Women in sports media are often questioned and criticized more than their male counterparts. Any female in the industry knows exactly what I’m referring to; at some point, we have all been asked to name five players on the team we claim to be fans of or asked some question about an insignificant moment in sports history that no one would know the answer to (think who was pitching in the fourth inning of game two of the 1998 World Series level of obscurity). 

There’s also the fear of being sexually harassed in the industry. Along with the extreme examples such as former Mets general manager Jared Porter sending unsolicited nude photos to female reporters, many women in sports media have countless stories of being hit on by male coaches, executives and players. 

Even if no direct advances are made, the opportunity for it automatically implies we’re there for the wrong reasons. One older member of the industry shared with me once that she was not allowed into team practices for a certain football organization because she would “be a distraction to the players.” I have my stories, as does every female sports journalist. 

This year, Ally Navarrete, Margaret Fleming and I started the first all-female live radio show in WNUR Sports history called Her Take to bring light to these very issues and more. Although we love talking about anything and everything related to women’s sports, it became increasingly discouraging when we never ran out of topics or news related to sex-based discrimination in the industry. 

In no way am I implying that this is the overall culture in sports media. So much progress has been made over the years to ensure women in sports media can exist and thrive in these spaces. I look at so many of my role models in the sports journalism industry– Jenny Taft, Lisa Byington, Emily Ehman, Maria Taylor, Andrea Kremer, just to name a few. They are the reason why I feel confident to pursue this as a career and why I believe I belong in this industry. It has also been incredibly encouraging to see so many firsts occur in sports journalism; just this past year, Byington, another Northwestern alum, became the first female full-time TV play-by-play broadcaster for any major men’s professional sports team when she took over as the Milwaukee Bucks’ announcer.

These firsts should be celebrated and recognized. However, it is our responsibility now to make sure they are not the lasts. Honoring the 50th anniversary of Title IX means so much more than just checking a box. It means more than writing features about trailblazers in women’s sports today and going back to the same content tomorrow. It means more than an infographic on Instagram, and it definitely means more than myself just posting this article.

To truly honor Title IX and all of the milestones of the past 50 years, the conversation around women’s sports cannot be confined to one day. 

This all begins with expanding coverage, as well as women being hired in positions of power, whether that be in coaching, front office spaces or press boxes. There is also so much to be done in terms of allocating equal resources between men’s and women’s teams in high school, college and professional athletics. The list goes on.

All of these seem like big tasks that fall onto the shoulders of team executives and broadcast producers. So, what can you and I do to support women’s sports past today?

It’s simple. Watch women’s sports. Attend games. Talk and read about them. Let’s reframe the conversation around women’s sports together. We have an incredible opportunity at Northwestern to do so with so many top women’s programs in the nation. Not every school has a Final Four appearance, College World Series berth and National Championship all in one year. 

By prioritizing women’s sports at the individual level, we have an opportunity to change the culture, even if it is only at our university. Filling out a March Madness bracket next year? Make sure you’re doing so for both the men’s and women’s tournaments. Usually go to football on Saturday’s? Cap off the weekend in the stands of Martin Stadium and cheer on the women’s soccer team too. Every day efforts make a difference.

More interest leads to an increase in viewership, which creates more opportunities for air-time. More coverage means an overall push to recognize men’s and women’s sports as equals, forcing the overall narrative in marketing of women’s sports to change. Increased awareness and coverage ensures more accountability is held for those allocating resources.

Even though talking about and attending women’s sports seems small, it contributes to an overall culture shift– one that will help inspire the next generation of female athletes, reporters and managers.

Changing the culture is for all of the little girls dreaming of being on the field, sidelines or in the studio. Personally, it’s for my younger self who felt compelled to write an essay in elementary school about the gender wage gap within the U.S. Soccer Federation.