Title IX 40 for 40: Suzanne Bailey
Suzanne Bailey was a two-sport star at Brown before graduating in 1991, earning Ivy League Player of the Year and first-team All-America honors in both sports. She went on to play for the US National Lacrosse Team and is currently an English teacher at The Potomac School in McLean, Va.
What impact has Title IX had on you?
Bailey: It is impossible for me to describe the full impact Title IX has had on my life. Needless to say, its impact has been profound because at my core I define myself as an athlete—personally and professionally. And nothing I have experienced as an athlete—at any stage—would have been possible without the vision, courage and resolve of women who came before me. When I first considered this question, I was on a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina. In this setting I pictured, metaphorically, girls today riding tall waves, skimming through half-pipes on sleek boards: this summer the U.S. Olympic Team will be comprised of more women than men for the first time in history. My group of women rode the crests of these waves—rising high, seeing all possibilities, well on our way. We could play on elite travel squads, we cheered for the women’s national soccer team, we were recruited and we vied for college scholarships. Women who were athletes before Title IX were the ones who swam across the ocean. They launched an era that provided my generation with the privilege of not even having to think about whether pursuing athletics was a viable option.
Formally my athletic career began at age five in 1974—two years after the passage of Title IX—when my mom registered me for soccer with the “Annandale (Virginia) Boys Club” (no questions asked). I went on to play multiple sports in high school, compete in two of them (soccer and lacrosse) at the Division I level, and then train for four years with the U.S. women’s lacrosse team. Today, beyond Bikram yoga, cycling or hiking, athletics continues to shape the way I approach relationships and responsibilities, both personal and professional. Through athletics, I know that each person’s role is vital to the success of any venture. This understanding was honed through years of discipline to practice, commitment to team, the experience of shared wins and losses, a nuanced appreciation for leadership and honest—sometimes difficult—self-assessment. Both on the field and off, such lessons reinforce imperatives of effort, accountability and resilience. They also render unacceptable excuses for either not getting a job done or not being present for someone who needs the support of a “teammate.”
What has Title IX done for women outside the sports realm?
Bailey: Risk-taking is inherent in sport. In fact, our word for “play” is derived from the Old English plegan, which means literally “to take a risk.” I believe opportunities for women to compete, created by Title IX, have emboldened women to take risks beyond the realm of sport. Playing sports has helped girls push themselves harder, set and obtain more ambitious goals, learn skills of collaboration, confront challenges and become more confident and resilient. On a social level, Title IX also empowered women as it said clearly to businesses and government that they could not discriminate against women or minorities in their hiring practices.
Additionally, I think Title IX’s contribution to increased sports participation has given men and women another shared language of understanding. Whether playing against or alongside boys, or competing in gender-separate settings, athletes understand each other through that experience. I believe an ease of interaction and a sense of mutual respect grows from these shared experiences. Whether having ankles taped in the training room next to guys on the football team, bemoaning the Red Sox’s woes at work with whomever is in the faculty lounge, or even speaking metaphorically in the language of sport, men and women have the opportunity to interact through a common appreciation or dedication. When this language involves an endeavor as profound as sport, which encompasses a person’s entire being—body, intellect and emotion—the potential for understanding and mutual respect is significant.
What is the biggest challenge to women in sports?
Bailey: One challenge pertaining directly to Title IX involves an unfortunate public perception of the law’s impact on collegiate athletic programs. Sadly, since the inception of Title IX, hundreds of men’s programs, such as wrestling, tennis and gymnastics, have been cut from their departments’ budgets. Title IX is often blamed, erroneously, for these eliminations. This interpretation is overly simplistic, fueled by a misunderstanding that “major” men’s sports, such as football and basketball, typically generate the revenue essential to fund all other athletic programs; thus, these programs are untouchable. I was intrigued by an article I read recently, which clarified for me that the reality is far more complex. Forbes.com presented breakdowns of revenues, expenses, and profits of football and basketball programs in various conferences and considered their impact on their universities’ overall athletic department budgets.
What I saw was that unless an institution is a national powerhouse like University of Florida, whose football program generates extraordinary profit, colleges and universities do ultimately decide how to allocate funds for athletics—implicitly and explicitly making value statements through their programs. Although not easy, it thus seems possible that many institutions could devise approaches to preserve “minor” men’s athletic programs. Yet I know there are many factors I do not understand, and I am aware that even smart, fair, thoughtful, people from my own alma mater, Brown University, have struggled with this issue. My point is simply that the knee-jerk reaction to blame women’s sports for eliminating men’s programs is hurtful to everyone who cares.
Beyond the legislation itself, I think one of the biggest challenges to women’s sports right now is defining what “having arrived” looks like: should the goal on the women’s side be to emulate the model of big-time men’s sports? Controversy abounds surrounding the “professionalization” of college sport and the exploitation of the big-time (male) athlete, so perhaps women have an opportunity to proceed differently. The lure of competing before a massive TV audience, striving for the professional ranks, and perhaps turning a game into a livelihood is obviously enticing. However, the percentage of male athletes who actually follow this path is infinitesimal while the casualties are countless. Where should the ceiling be for women? Do women have a chance to “do it right” by avoiding such trappings of success? Can women still benefit from all the lessons athletics offers, but also maintain perspective and “go pro”—as the NCAA public-service announcement says—in something other than the sport she played in college?
Who is someone you view as a pioneer in women’s
athletics and why?
Bailey: For different reasons, I see Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King as pioneers in women’s athletics. Martina was a role model for young, athletic girls who neither looked like, nor could relate to, “Chrissie” Evert, a tremendous sportswoman in her own right. Quintessential American girl, slender, blonde and adorned in ruffles, Chrissie was easy for the public to embrace; even her toughness was cute. Her rivalry with Martina would become legendary and seemed grounded by a healthy sense of mutual respect. However, Martina was the “anti-Chrissie” in many ways: Slavic, muscular, lacking enough hair for a bouncy pony-tail. No ruffles—she looked terribly uncomfortable in her tennis dress. Martina’s toughness was visceral; thus, she posed more of a challenge. Martina was the strong, skin-kneed girl who ventured beyond the “tomboy” stage into something far bigger. This advance naturally made her vulnerable to social critique. While this happened, young girls like me had the privilege of watching Martina navigate these uncertain waters. Benefitting from her triumphs and missteps, listening to the dialogue surrounding her “image,” admiring her struggle to become comfortable—and then ultimately graceful and powerful—in her sinewy skin, we found our own ways, not feeling bound by a single image of a successful female athlete. Later in life I also appreciated Martina’s intellect and eloquence in addition to her strength and athleticism.
In accepting Bobby Riggs’ pompous challenge in 1973 to determine the “champion of women’s tennis,” Billie Jean King placed herself in a situation where she absolutely could not lose. King’s contemporary, Margaret Court, had already crumbled under the weight of the challenge and lost badly to Riggs, but Billie Jean delivered in a way that captured public attention. I think it is sad that a woman at the peak of her professional athletic career actually had to defeat a man nearly twice her age on national television to “prove” anything, but King recognized that laws and public opinion do not necessarily change simultaneously. While Title IX had legislated “equal” opportunity, the process of women earning respect for their athletic talents was in its infancy. King went on to champion for equal prize money in tournaments, almost prophesying the next frontier of “success” in women’s athletics—appearance fees, professional contracts or lucrative endorsement deals.