He’s a man you’ve likely never heard of. The son of an Indiana State University basketball coach who excelled in sports himself — primarily as a boxer and a collegiate baseball player — Birch Bayh was sworn in as a U.S. senator from his home state on Jan. 3, 1963.
Bayh spent 18 years in that office, becoming the only non-Founding Father to author two amendments to the U.S. Constitution: the 25th Amendment, handling presidential succession, and the 26th, which lowered the federal voting age to 18.
But it was his days playing sports that occupied the senator’s mind. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 tackled all kinds of discrimination when it came to employment and public accommodation, it bothered Bayh that the bill failed to address sex discrimination at schools.
He set out to change that, crafting the 37 words that would make up what we now know as Title IX: “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.”
While we might see Title IX today as a law focused on sports, what Bayh and his House counterpart, U.S. Rep. Edith Green, pushed through Congress did more than that. No more could schools legally favor one gender over another in any respect, including pay and employment opportunities. If it was good enough for a man, it was good enough for a woman.
But yes, some of the most visible impacts came in the world of sports, changing what was once a male-dominated enterprise into something that could be enjoyed by anyone. Like Elizabeth Serra, who just finished her first season with the Woodland Middle School football team in East Meadow.
Elizabeth scored 16 points as a kicker, and even broke a tie to give Woodland a final win over the Seaford Vikings. Yet being the only girl on the team didn’t faze her a bit.
“I was a little bit nervous, but then I realized what I really wanted to do,” the 13-year-old said. “I just really wanted to play football. So it didn’t really bother me that much.”
Even a few years ago, a girl kicking field goals for a football team was considered a novelty. Today it’s just another day on the gridiron. Elizabeth is far from alone.
Before Title IX, just 300,000 girls took part in high school sports, according to a report last summer by NPR. Today that number is 3.5 million. And while Title IX focuses on schools, it has a much wider reach.
Like with the New York Islanders Girls Elite Hockey program, started in 2016 by Alexis Moed, the general manager of the Connecticut Whale, a team in the women-focused professional Premier Hockey Federation. Working with the NHL’s Islanders, the league is filled with girls ages 8 to 19, all playing on the same ice at the Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow as the four-time Stanley Cup champions.
The league has become a second home for Debbie Curry, a 12-year-old from Seaford, who started her hockey career on boys’ teams.
“She always had a target (on) her for being a girl in a boy sport,” Debbie’s mother, Christie, said. “Here she can be recognized and have a chance to go somewhere with hockey in the future, because they’re giving the girls a chance to shine.
“I’ve never seen her so happy, and she can just be herself.”
Title IX has helped girls come a long way, but the fight is far from over. Many schools still don’t know how to properly enforce Title IX compliance, while others have chosen to cut programs rather than expand them to include everyone. Retaliation runs rampant, and the U.S. Department of Education believes there are more areas of improvement needed, including the end of discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics.
Birch Bayh died in 2019, at age 91. But he lived long enough to see the impact his 37 simple words had on the lives of millions. An impact that literally brought him to tears.
Kelly Krauskopf is an assistant general manager of the Indiana Pacers. But in 2000, she made her mark helping to bring the Indiana Fever into existence in the WNBA. They sold out their first game with 16,000 people filling the arena, and Krauskopf invited Bayh to join her on the hardwood before the tipoff.
“I said to him, ‘Look at this place. Can you believe this?’” she told the Indianapolis Star. “‘This would never have happened had it not been for you.’
“He looks at me and he has these big tears in his eyes. And he said he had no idea (Title IX) would have this kind of impact. It was just one of the coolest moments.”