From Billie Jean King to Olympic hopeful Shannon Leinert, competition is the fuel that powers women in sports.
I remember Shannon Leinert at 11. She was small, quiet, a little shy. When she ran her ponytail flew straight out behind her, like it was hanging on. Shannon was a whisper of a girl everywhere but on the track. On the track she was a roar—a force of speed and focus.
We grew up in Missouri where races were flat and fast. And before puberty, we were, too. We finished first and second in Turkey Trots, shuttle runs and timed miles. By second grade, Shannon was running competitively for a club team, and by fourth grade, I joined her.
There were always boys with us in races at school, but I don’t remember worrying I couldn’t catch them. Shannon was the competition.
On the track she was a roar?—?a force of speed and focus.
But then puberty happened, and that means two things for female athletes: You change shape (sometimes subtly, sometimes not) and you stop competing with the boys.
Now you’re changing in locker rooms before running instead of just taking off into the mulch wearing whatever you put on for school that day. And just as you separate, biology kicks in and the boys’ bodies start adding muscle and yours starts adding fat. It’s all very important for the species, I suppose—but man, does it suck for the psyche.
Boys start getting better the same minute they’re no longer racing you. Now, riding the surge of their newfound strength, the boys’ victories seem bigger. Now it seems like you were separated because you couldn’t hang. Now if you’re a girl and you’re good, you’re only good for a girl.
This is not news.
But on Sept. 20, 1973, Billie Jean King was. That night, in front of a crowd of more than 30,000 in Houston’s Astrodome, King took on Bobby Riggs in a “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match and outright destroyed him.
But we’ll come back to that. If I forget, jog my memory. Just say, “blue suede shoes.”
First, some history
Title IX was just 15 months old in the fall of ’73. It was a landmark piece of legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity offered by an institution receiving federal funding. That’s the legal way of saying that if you got government money, you had to use it to everyone’s benefit equally, boys and girls included.
President Nixon signed the amendment into law less than a week after five of his operatives were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Convention headquarters at Watergate. Given the bigger scoop, the victory for women’s rights flew somewhat under the radar.
And while flying under the radar had its advantages?—?the first legal challenge to the Title wasn’t leveled until almost two years after its passage?—?it also meant that the impact of the Amendment was muted.
Writing about Senator Birch Bayh, co-sponsor of Title IX, for ESPN, Melissa Isaacson said she now credits Title IX for so much: “The job I chose, the man I married, the mother I’ve tried to be.” But when she was a teen entering high school in 1975, the change in legislation felt far from seismic.
According to Isaacson, “Most of us still hadn’t heard of Title IX three years after it had passed.”
Only a few years before, she recalled, the main outlet for athletic competition among high school girls came in the form of “postal tournaments,” a system by which girls would participate in various events at their home schools and then mail their results to the state High School Association. The results of these “competitions” would be mailed back to them months later. Thrilling stuff.
So although the legislation existed to ensure equal opportunities for girls in education and athletics in 1973, it hadn’t quite made a dent. Plus, it was up against detractors like Bobby Riggs.
The Battle of the Sexes
Riggs was a formidable competitor in the men’s tennis circuit in the 1930s and 40s. In ’39, he was the top-ranked player in the world. When his professional career ended in 1969, he switched to tennis promotion and adopted the posture of a bombastic bully bent on gaining exposure for the sport by delegitimizing its female players.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: When Riggs challenged King, she was an accomplished athlete at the top of her field, while he was an old white man not considered a real competitor, but strutting like one just the same. He had a terrible haircut and a big mouth. And even more than hard shots to the baseline, he seemed to specialize in lobbing insults at his female opponent designed to discredit, belittle and unnerve her and women at large.
In a cover story in Time a week before the match, Riggs said, “Billie Jean King is one of the all time tennis greats, she’s one of the superstars, she’s ready for the big one, but she doesn’t stand a chance against me, women’s tennis is so far beneath men’s tennis, that’s what makes the contest with a 55-year-old man the greatest contest of all time.”
And in a way, it was.
When Riggs challenged King, she was an accomplished athlete at the top of her field, while he was an old white man not considered a real competitor, but strutting like one just the same.
Grace Lichtenstein, reporting for The New York Times that night, wrote that King’s fans “screamed, ‘Atta boy, Billie!’ while “Riggs fans yelled, ‘Kill! Kill!’”
King’s father?—?the same age as Riggs?—?“leaped out of his seat, screaming ‘Go, baby go!’ at every King point. George Foreman, the heavyweight champion, did the same.”
The win was decisive. By the third set of the night, a poised, practiced and determined King ran Riggs “to the point of near exhaustion,” according to Neil Amdur’s report of the match for the Times.
At her post-game press conference, King was so amped up, she had to take off her blue suede tennis shoes and pace around barefoot to calm down.
Fighting for the Title
I wish I could say that after Title IX passed and Billie Jean beat Bobby, we all congratulated one another on our progress as a nation and moved proudly forward.
But of course we didn’t.
According to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, more than 20 attempts to undermine Title IX have been made since 1975.
As recently as 1996 (the year Alanis Morrisette won Best Album for “Jagged Little Pill” and my sister bought a color-block T-shirt from the Gap that I still keep in rotation), Brown University fought an accusation that it discriminated against female athletes with the assertion that it did not violate Title IX because women are less interested in sports than men.
Three years later, a sold-out crowd of 90,000 spectators watched the US women’s soccer team beat China to win the World Cup.
That’s the national history of Title IX.
But there’s a personal history to the Amendment, too
To Shannon Leinert, the history of Title IX is her history. Today, Shannon has her PhD in Special Education and Teaching and a nutrition company she started with her family. She’s applying for post-doc research roles to study behavioral strategies for children with autism.
Oh, yeah, and she has qualified for the Olympic trials. Twice. She’s 29.
Her best time in the 800 meters (two laps around the track, for the uninitiated) is 2:01. She’s run it twice. You know what I can do in 2:01? Open a stubborn pack of shrink-wrapped batteries. But only if I get scissors at the 1:45 mark.
Because of Title IX, Shannon got to do more than square dance in PE as a kid. And because of that, she discovered she was fast and had opportunities to test her speed against other girls on the track?—?not just through the mail.
Competition taught her that she likes to push herself, and that it’s okay to work really, really hard at something and not know if it’s going to work out. Learning that made her a good researcher. She appreciates the process and rigor of the scientific method as much as the result.
Competition taught her that she likes to push herself, and that it’s okay to work really, really hard at something and not know if it’s going to work out.
Last year, the year she thought would be the end of her professional running career, Shannon had her best race. The circumstances were less than ideal. A few weeks before the annual Festival of Miles meet in St. Louis, her hometown, Shannon’s boyfriend of five years broke up with her. Running on little sleep and an emotional hangover, she was hit with a stress fracture. She knew what it was, but avoided going to the doctor for confirmation until after the race.
“I didn’t want the doctor to tell me it was a stress fracture and then the whole time that would be in my head,” she said. She decided to tell herself that her foot hurt, but she could run on it.
It wasn’t her first go at the Festival of Miles. While the race has never been the most important of her season, it’s sponsored by the first running shop that sponsored her. The Festival meant a lot to her—and it was aggravating she hadn’t won it.
“Every year I was getting second or third,” Shannon said. “And I was running really fast. I’d run 2:02s and get second, 2:03s and get third; I just wasn’t winning.”
But this time was different. Years of not quite making the cut, memories of injuries that’d cost her a spot on the University of Florida track team and jeopardized her shot at going to the Olympics, and weeks of emotional and physical fallout from her breakup—all these crystallized into a singular desire to run.
With 200 meters left to go, Shannon was surprised to find herself in the lead pack. Even more surprising, she felt good. “I thought, ‘I think I’m going to go for it.’”
She’d been healthier before, she’d been faster before, but she’d never needed it this much before?—?and she won.
“That was one of the first times I felt like I was running free,” she says. “There was a weight lifted off my shoulders.”
When telling this story, Shannon said the same thing Billie Jean King said about her decision to face Bobby Riggs: There was no way I was not going to do it.
It’s the anthem of Title IX, and why it matters so much. Before it, few women had opportunities to practice pushing themselves to win. Competition teaches you what you are capable of, and once you know, there’s no way you’re not living up to it.
Once you’ve proven you can come back from injuries, that you can make the team, that you can work six days a week?—?holding down a full-time job and running in the dark, that you can will your legs to turn faster while tilting your torso into the curve and keeping your footsteps just inside the lines, that you’ve built your heart and mind and muscles into a symphony of strength, that you can take the lead with 200 to go?—?once you know you can win, there is no way you’re not going for it.