A couple of weekends ago I was at a backyard barbeque, holding an empty plate in one hand and a full drink in the other, watching what looked like a commercial for either GapKids or a fertility clinic. Several sitcoms' worth of adorable elementary schoolers were racing each other through the grass, yelling and singing and smearing the outdoor furniture with Smuckers-sticky fingerprints.
One girl, who was probably 7 or 8, stayed by herself, dribbling a soccer ball from foot to foot, kicking it off the side of a parked Chrysler, and shaking imaginary Wayne Rooneys (or quite possibly the real Wayne Rooney) as she crossed in my direction.
She picked the ball up, smoothed her hair down and shyly said hello. "What's up, Abby Wambach," I said, because I am That Cool Adult. Nothing. Silence. "So why aren't you playing with the other kids?" I asked. She shrugged, pressing her face against the adidas logo. "They're dumb," she said. "I'd rather do this."
"Yeah, I was kind of a tomboy when I was your age, too," I said.
She looked up, her forehead tattooed with blades of grass. "What's a tomboy?"
I guess it is kind of an outdated term, like "jalopy" or "divan" or something else you'd read in a yellowing Nancy Drew hardcover where she's investigating why women don't wear long pants. "You know," I said, suddenly feeling nervous, "A girl who likes sports and playing outside and stuff. Why? What do you call someone like that?"
She didn't know the term because her own parents weren't even born when Indiana senator Birch Bayh introduced Title IX to Congress in 1972, but she provided a spontaneously perfect example of that legislation's impact ... and its continued importance.
Sports weren't mentioned in Title IX's tidy 37 words, but its promise that women wouldn't be "excluded from participation in (.) any education program or activity" allowed us to start leaving our collective footprints on playing fields and parquet floors and rubberized oval tracks.
Since the legislation was enacted on June 23, 1972, women's participation in sports has grown roughly a bazillion percent (I'm not very good at math) from 294,015 high school athletes in 1972 to 3,057,266 in 2008, while at the college level, the numbers have increased from 29,972 in 1972 to 186,460 in 2010.
That matters on several levels, and most of them have nothing to do with goals or nets or baskets. Studies show sports benefit women in ways that range from a decreased risk of breast cancer to a better chance of success in the workplace. (For an excellent, in-depth look at sports' impact on women's lives, I highly recommend the Kindle-able .pdf report "Her Life Depends On It," compiled by the Women's Sports Foundation.)
But for every IX-centric story from a varsity athlete or all-time legend, there are people like me, whose closest brush with athletic glory was accidentally elbowing Annika Sorenstam in a hotel lobby. I didn't go to college on an athletic scholarship. If you had to rank my natural ability on a scale of 1 to Michael Cera, I would be his entire film career.
That doesn't matter. It didn't matter.
For me, just being able to play, to have that outlet and to be part of a team, changed the way I set goals and measure success, gave my self-esteem a shot in the scrawny arm and ensured that I'd keep looking for challenges and competition well into my adult life.
I'm now a decade past my below-average high school career (And guys, I can still fit into my official golf team khakis, if that's something you're interested in and why are you shaking your heads? LOOK AT THESE PLEATS! THESE ARE DUCKHEAD BRAND!) and I've switched to distance running, probably because it doesn't require a lot of coordination to drop one foot in front of the other.
Last weekend, I was one of 14,000 masochists who lined up in the unseasonably steamy heat for the Cleveland Half Marathon, displaying my frantic, flailing stride for 13.1 miles.
On Saturday, Joan Benoit Samuelson was scheduled to speak at the race expo. The 54-year-old Benoit Samuelson won the Boston Marathon twice and, in 1984, became the first woman to win a gold medal in the Olympics marathon. (1984 was the first time there even WAS a women's marathon in the Olympics).
As the crowd gathered in the Exposition Center - which, appropriately enough, is also known as the IX - I noticed all kinds of Girl Power-ish slogans on the back of their t-shirts, things like "Yes, I Run Like a Girl, Try to Keep Up" and "You Wish You Could Run Like a Girl."
Thanks to women such as Benoit Samuelson - whose career started in 1972 when her Title IX-compliant high school started a girls' running club - it seems like we could stop differentiating.
At least I'd like us to. "You play (or run or swing or kick) like a girl" isn't deployed as an insult anymore. But, at least to this woman, "I play like a girl" doesn't feel empowering either. It feels like a limitation, one I hope won't be a screenprinted slogan for another generation.
You wish you could run like me, period.
I play, period.
We're not there yet, but we're getting there. Thanks to Bayh and his stereotype-smashing legislation, girls who are involved in sports, who know their way around shin pads and slide tackles and sweat-wicking fabrics aren't the exception anymore. Many are exceptional, and they're no longer oddities or outsiders or even tomboys.
They're just girls. Forty years later, they're just girls.
Jelisa Castrodale has learned a lot about life by making a mess of her own. Read more at jelisacastrodale.com, follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/gordonshumway, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org