by Kathryn Lee Kemp, Women's Institute on Sport and Education,
and Melinda Shelton
Let 1996 go down in Olympic history as the Year of the Female Athlete. For the first time in modern Olympic history, women dominated both in events and worldwide recognition. More than 65,000 spectators crammed the stands to see the U.S. women claim a soccer gold medal, while thousands more experienced history as the U.S. claimed the first gold medal ever awarded in softball. And the Georgia Dome rocked with more than 35,000 fans -- many wearing jerseys emblazoned with their favorite female athlete's name and number -- who witnessed spectacular basketball as the U.S. swept by Brazil to win the gold medal.
The U.S. sent the largest contingent of female athletes -- 287 -- and the 3,779 women competitors (out of 10,440 total) represented a 26 percent increase from the previous summer games in Barcelona, Spain. In fact, women in this year's games comprised 34.4 percent of the competitors, compared to 20.6 percent in Montreal's 1976 games.
While most people understand the spirit behind Olympic events -- breaking down barriers -- many people are unaware of a law that has done just that for this country's female athletes. Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 states "no person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal aid."
This year marked competition by the first generation of female athletes who have benefited fully from Title IX, many of whom were coached by women who blazed athletic trails for this year's medalists.
But despite the obvious triumphs of our women athletes at the Olympics and beyond and society's growing acceptance of females as competitors, Title IX remains a favorite target for politicians and educational institutions eager to cut financial corners -- at the expense of girls and young women. Gross inequities still exist in coaching salaries, quality and availability of locker rooms, practice and competitive facilities, quality and quantity of equipment and supplies -- and the list goes on.
What can we do to support gender equity in athletics and ensure the continued growth of women's sports?
After several failed attempts in the U.S. in the late 1970s and early '80s, a professional league for women looks like a sure bet to succeed, particularly on the heels of the Olympics. Interest in women's basketball is at an all-time high, including among the male-dominated sports writing industry.
The American Basketball League -- a gender-free title -- signed most of the Olympic team players, along with 20 other top women players in the country. Tryouts provided an additional pool of some 100 players who were eligible for the league draft in June.
With eight teams completed, the ABL's first season begins in October with teams located in Atlanta, Ga.; Denver, Colo.; Hartford/Springfield, Conn.; Portland, Ore.; Richmond, Va.; San Jose, Calif.; and Seattle, Wash. League players will be paid an average of $70,000, with a minimum salary of $40,000 and a maximum of $125,000 annually.
"We believe that we have the right plan, and we're moving forward as planned to start play in October," said ABL co-founder Gary Cavalli. "We feel we're playing at the right time during basketball season, and we're playing in the right markets, in the right-sized arenas and with the right players."
Most gratifying is the ABL's approach to putting this league into play. Women are coaching and managing these teams, and they encourage input from players.
Following the huge success of this year's Women's Final Four in Charlotte, N.C., ever-increasing public support of women's collegiate and high school basketball, and the excitement generated by the USA's national Olympic team, this professional basketball league has the makings of a new national pastime.
Further information can be obtained from the ABL office at 415-903-3184.