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June 20, 2012

Law banning sex bias struck a national sports nerve

It's easy to forget just how different things were 40 years ago until you listen to former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh talk about the daughter of an Oklahoma wheat farmer who changed his life.

That girl was Marvella Hern, who'd been a straight-A student, class president and national speech champion in high school when she was denied admission to the college of her choice in 1951. The rejection letter from the University of Virginia was terse: "Women need not apply."

Bayh married that girl and has told her story again and again to explain how he became known as the father of Title IX – the 1972 federal law that forbids gender discrimination at schools that get federal aid and changed the male-dominated culture of American sports.

As the retired Indiana senator recounts it now, Marvella convinced him it was foolish to waste the brainpower of half the population by denying women access to equal opportunity in educational institutions.

"You're not exactly asking anybody to be a profile in courage when you're asking them to support a law that benefits so many people," Bayh, 84, said in a recent interview. "Still, we had no idea just how far it would go."

Championed by Bayh in the Senate and Hawaii's Patsy Mink and Oregon's Edith Green in the House, Title IX was signed into law by President Richard Nixon 40 years ago on June 23, 1972.

What started out as a means to compel equal access to education - especially in medical and law schools - also opened arenas of sport to girls and women in ways Bayh never imagined. There are nearly 10 times as many female players in intercollegiate athletics as there were in 1972; the number of girls in high school sports has jumped nearly 1,000 percent.

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