Title IX has benefited anyone who loves sports

You can’t love kids and not love Title IX.

You can’t love sports and not appreciate what the landmark legislation did to America’s sports landscape.

You can’t watch Hope Solo and not think back to a generation ago, when she might’ve had to settle for cheer captain.

Happy 40th, Title IX, a plain-Jane name for the biggest, most colossal sports development since someone stuck an air needle in a pig’s bladder. Bigger than Lombardi, bigger than Gatorade. Bigger, almost, than Chris Berman.

They used to say a conservative is merely a liberal who’s been mugged a couple of times. In that same vein, a feminist is just a former chauvinist who’s had an athletic daughter or two.

As the father of two daughters and two sons, my enjoyment of youth sports doubled under Title IX. How different being a dad would’ve been the last 40 years without this dull-as-dirt snippet of legalese:

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of 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.”

That’s it ... emancipation in 37 words.

Bet you scoffed too. Most men and boys did when Title IX passed, male America emitting that mocking, back-of-the-throat “yeah, right” sound we make when something seems the height of ridiculousness, of do-gooders run amok.

You’re splitting what? You’re flushing football revenue where?

The NCAA and senators fought it. Texas’ Darrell Royal feared the law “would seriously weaken the programs we have in existence.”

“I can recall it even being described as ‘communist,’ ” says Pasadena father Steve Ferri, then a 15-year-old athlete in conservative Bedford, Mass., who remembers his own deep skepticism at the time.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the world ending. Sports somehow survived. In fact, it thrived. The glories of modern sport in America didn’t just grow under Title IX, they exploded.

“I definitely think it was a defining moment for women in our country,” says former soccer standout Brandi Chastain by phone, after dropping her 6-year-old off at soccer practice earlier in the day. “Like Jackie Robinson, it changed the way people viewed sports.

“I think you can look across the board at so many aspects of work lives — science, engineering, medicine — and see the impact of Title IX.”

Now, of this, there can be little doubt:

--That we load all our worries of a fretful world onto our kids;

--That we spend years reading to them before bed, only to see them grow up not to be readers;

--That we too often outsource our parenting — to math tutors, pitching coaches, Mandarin teachers, summer camps.

But every once in a while we get things right. Just right. And during one of the most conservative administrations in history — amid the Vietnam War and a break-in at that hideous Washington hotel — Richard Nixon signed Title IX in 1972.

And there’s been no looking back.

By 2010, the number of girls playing high school sports rose to 3.2 million, up more than 1,000%. Fears that it would devastate male sports proved unfounded. In 2010, 4.5 million boys still played high school sports, an increase of almost a quarter over the same period.

“I think it’s the most significant sports development of the past 50 years,” says Ferri, the skeptical Massachusetts teen who grew up to have three very athletic daughters, one now playing softball at Harvard. “I wouldn’t trade the experience of helping her pursue her dream and the dozen-plus years of daily sitting on a bucket taking pitches off of my shins for a billion dollars.”

Unlike with Jackie Robinson, there is no icon for Title IX, now as much a part of the American landscape as milky autumn moons.

Yet maybe there is. It’s that freckled kid in the team picture on your den wall. She’s probably 4 or 5 and her britches cinch up just under her armpits and fit her like a parachute. Missing a few teeth, she has one of those jack-o'-lantern smiles. Next to her is her dad. He’s smiling too (and his pants don’t fit so hot either).

They’re the real legacy of Title IX. Because not only did Title IX give young girls a competitive chance, it made better fathers of their old men. In fact, four decades later, Title IX may have done as much for dads as it did for daughters.

So, happy birthday, Title IX. At 40, you’re just a kid.