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Girl Power Part 1: Battle of the Sexes

Makers: Women Who Make America
A still from the PBS video "Battle of the Sexes" pictures Billie Jean King (l) and Bobby Riggs, who defined the era in sports.

Despite the advancements delivered by Title IX legislation over the last 50 years, girls still participate in sports less than boys and the disparity widens with the pressures of adulthood. Why does it matter? Because kids who compete do better in school, at work and throughout life. So WBFO's Marian Hetherly took a look at leveling the playing field in a series she is calling "Girl Power."

Today's young girls weren't around in 1973, but that is where our story begins. It was a critical moment in the Women's Rights Movement and the event capturing the nation's attention was a tennis match dubbed the "Battle of the Sexes."

"The so-called 'Battle of the Sexes' was a nationally broadcast tennis match, pitting former male champion named Bobby Riggs against the best female tennis player in the world, Billie Jean King."

As the PBS series "Makers: Women Who Make America" said, King was an irresistible target for Riggs, an unabashed male chauvenist with a gift for self-promotion.

"The male is king. The male is supreme. I've said it over and over again. I still feel that way. Girls play a nice game of tennis for girls," Riggs said at the time.

Men like Bobby rigged the male majority at the time. But after game, set and match, Billie Jean was crowned "King."

"I was so relieved. I was so happy," King remembered. "That night wasn't about tennis. It was about history and it was about social change."

That was the era in which Title IX of the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. The landmark legislation has inspired social change for generations of school-age girls since.

"To abide by Title IX, you have to make sure there are equal opportunities for men and women and that they're funded and provide similar experiences. That changed everything," said attorney and lifelong athlete Bridget Niland.

Credit Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation
Bridget Niland is director of Youth Sports Initiatives for the Community Foundation, where she leads the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation's Project Play WNY.

Like Billie Jean's victory, Niland said Title IX was "a game changer." Niland is director of Youth Sports Initiatives at the Community Foundation, where she leads the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation's Project Play WNY. She said Title IX was originally passed to provide equal educational opportunities for girls and boys in grades K-12.

"You know, you could take Industrial Arts as a girl and you could take Home Ec(onomics) as a boy, but you weren't necessarily tracked into those and excluded from the gender-designated class," she said.

It took another two decades of battles of the sexes over implementation and enforcement for Congress to more clearly define "equal opportunities" to mean all education programs and activities receiving federal funds, including sports, and the U.S. Supreme Court to give the law even more muscle, by attaching financial penalties to violations.

"There was a group of young ladies on the cross country team at a public high school, in which they were banned from just running in their sports tops - you know, jog bra - and shorts," Niland said. "Needless to say, it failed miserably because here you're having two set of rules for different genders and you can't do that."

Because different rules create an uneven playing field for the genders.

So Title IX set the ground rules for school sports, the main way young girls get involved in athletics. After almost 50 years, how level is that playing field between girls and boys today?

Most agree we've come a long way, baby, but there's still a way to go. WBFO takes a closer look at that Monday morning in the next segment of our series "Girl Power."

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