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On 50th anniversary of Title IX, Sonoma County coaches reflect on progress, shortcomings in women’s sports

“It’s been a slow slog, but we’re getting there,” one longtime women’s coach said of progress under the landmark 1972 legislation.|

Monica Mertle’s late grandmother was the most competitive person she ever knew.

When Mertle, the head girls basketball coach at Cardinal Newman, got into coaching, her grandmother would come to all of Mertle’s games and keep stats, just like she had done for Mertle’s dad years earlier.

Back when Mertle first started playing basketball in grade school, she asked her grandmother what sports she played in high school in the 1940s in Santa Rosa.

“She kind of looked at me and said, ‘We didn’t have sports when I was in high school,’” Mertle recalled. “That was probably my first exposure to really understanding my opportunities were different than previous generations.”

Those new opportunities afforded to Mertle and millions of other women came via the passage of Title IX in 1972. Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon signing the Education Amendments Act — which was originally designed to address gender inequality in education — into law. But written within in the law was Title IX, 37 words that changed women’s sports forever.

While it would be years until Title IX was properly enforced — a struggle that continues today in some regards — the impact it has had on athletics over the last several decades is difficult to overstate. Specifically, the law banned discrimination based on sex in schools that received federal financial assistance. After the law was signed, schools had to provide equal opportunities for both male and female athletes.

The year before Title IX passed, fewer than 300,000 girls participated in high school sports, compared to 3.7 million boys, according to data compiled by the National Federation of High Schools. In 2019, the NFHS reported that 3.4 million girls and 4.5 million boys played high school sports.

Athletics in Sonoma County felt that change as well, and as Title IX turns 50, local women coaches, past and present, are reflecting on how it impacted their lives and the progress they hope to see in the future.

“It’s been a slow slog,” said Caren Franci, who coached women’s basketball at Santa Rosa Junior College from 1970 to 2002, “but we’re getting there.”

Before and after

Growing up in Southern California, Karen Stanley just wanted to play soccer. She was 10 when Title IX passed, but the opportunities were still few and far between during her teenage years.

Despite going to a high school with around 2,000 students, Stanley — who went on to a have a Hall of Fame coaching career that included an 11-year stint at Santa Rosa Junior College — had to play with the boys since the school didn’t have a girls team. And even while she was on the boys team, she originally wasn’t allowed to work out with her male teammates in the weight room.

“That was my first impetus of thinking this was not OK, this was not right,” Stanley recalled. “All of us should have the same opportunity.”

That was when Stanley first heard of Title IX and the first time she became acutely aware of the inequities that surrounded women’s sports.

Even years later as the head coach at USC, a position she held from 1993 to 1996, issues persisted. She said the school had created a women’s soccer program not because it wanted to, but because it had to. When compared to men’s program, her team was a bare-bones operation, with incredibly limited resources devoted to uniforms, facilities and travel money.

Franci recounted similar stories after Title IX passed — she had to put on bake sales to raise money for new uniforms and equipment and often had her male assistants mistaken as the head coach — as did Jan Smith Billing, the outgoing North Bay League commissioner who coached softball at Casa Grande High School from 1974 to 1988.

Smith Billing played sports all her life, taking advantage of the few opportunities she had, and eventually competed on club teams at UC Davis. She was 22 when she started at Casa Grande and quickly found that it would be difficult to get paid for her work as a coach.

“I met with the principal and I said, ‘Excuse me, where do I sign my paperwork for my coaching stipend?’ And he looked at me with total incredulity and said, ‘We don’t pay women to coach. We only pay men,’” she recalled. “I didn’t know what to do. I mean, what do you do when you’re told just flat-out that because you’re a female you don’t deserve a stipend?”

Much has changed for the better over the past five decades. Women’s participation in sports has grown exponentially at all levels. Today, women account for 44% of NCAA athletes, up from 15% before Title IX. At the Tokyo Olympics last summer, women represented 49% of all participants, touted as the most gender-equal Games to date. And just over a month ago, the U.S. women’s national soccer team reached an agreement with the U.S. Soccer Federation that would ensure equal pay with the men’s team.

And while local women coaches all agree that much progress has been made, the fight for true gender equality in sports still has a ways to go.

“I don’t think in 50 years we’ve done enough,” Stanley said.

Room for improvement

Mertle went back to school recently to get a master’s degree in sports psychology and a large portion of her studies was devoted to women in sports. She makes it a point to talk to her students and players about Title IX because she believes understanding the past will help shape the future to benefit others.

“A lot of students aren’t aware of it and when I bring up some of the inequities that have existed in the past, they’re surprised by it,” she said. “At times they even find it humorous, not because it happened but because they can’t believe that it actually happened. Like, ‘This was real? There really used to be a girls’ gym? The girls used to play basketball in skirts?’”

Mertle’s students aren’t alone. Nearly 75% of students and 60% of parents said they know “nothing at all” about Title IX, according to a poll conducted by Ipsos in April.

Title IX’s 37 words state: “No person in the United States shall, based on sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

What April’s Ipsos poll also revealed was that only one third of people polled believe that equal opportunities exist in high school athletics across the U.S.

As an example of the still-present inequities, both Franci and Stanley cited a viral video from the women’s NCAA Basketball Tournament in 2021. In it, Sedona Prince, a player from the University of Oregon, compared the exercise facilities the NCAA had set up for women and those for the men. The women’s weight room was a single stack of dumbbells, while the men had an entire room full of squat racks, weights and other equipment.

While overall participation of women in college sports continues to grow, there has been a steep decline in women coaches at the collegiate level since the passage of Title IX. In 1974, 90% of all women’s teams were coached by women. Today, that number is down to 42.7%.

Despite those shortcomings, Stanley remains optimistic about the future.

“I actually think that when you say something like ‘We still have a long ways to go,’ it’s an optimistic way to look at it, not pessimistic,” she explained. “The reason I think it’s optimistic is because I have so much belief and hope that girls and women can do so much.”

You can reach Staff Writer Gus Morris at 707-304-9372 or gus.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @JustGusPD.

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