Despite 35 years of dramatic growth and accomplishment in women's sports, it was three little words from a radio talk show host that got the most attention for female athletes this year.
Proponents of the gender equity legislation known as Title IX have Don Imus to thank for sparking discussion with his utterance of the phrase "nappy-headed hos."
His derogatory remarks about the Rutgers basketball team this month are one measurement of how far female athletes have come since the passage of the landmark law in 1972, said Mary Jo Kane, a Minnesota professor who is scheduled to speak about the legislation Saturday at Stanford.
"Had it not been for Title IX, Don Imus would have never made a comment about Rutgers or women's basketball," she said. "Without Title IX, women's sports in general would have never been on his radar screen."
Although the law bars sexual discrimination in any institution that accepts federal money, its influence has been defined most clearly in sports.
To mark Title IX's 35th anniversary, the Stanford Center of Ethics is playing host to an all-day conference Saturday that features a speech by tennis legend Billie Jean King. It also includes panels with Women's Sports Foundation CEO Donna Lopiano, International Olympic Committee member Anita DeFrantz and other scholars, coaches and administrators involved in issues of gender equity.
It was King's "Battle of the Sexes" match in 1973 against Bobby Riggs that brought awareness to the lack of opportunities for female athletes.
According to a report by two former Brooklyn College professors, approximately 16,000 women played college sports in 1971. The number reached 180,000 last year.
Linda Carpenter, one of the report's authors who has charted the growth of women athletes for three decades, said the Rutgers players promoted a positive image by their measured response to Imus.
"They give evidence that athletics programs when done right can really build strong, young women," said Carpenter, who also is scheduled to speak at Stanford. "Society is much more accepting of girls and women in sports, and even participating in the sweating, grunting sports."
For Kane, director of the Tucker Center of Research for Girls and Women in Sport, the most profound change since Title IX's inception has been the recent expectations of women athletes.
"For the first time we have a critical mass of dads having expectations that their daughters can grow up to get a college scholarship," she said. "For the first time girls grow up with a sense of entitlement about sport."
So when Imus tried to make fun of Rutgers' women by talking about their hair, it became personal for many families whose daughters play sports, Kane added.
Despite the inroads, Imus' widely publicized remarks were a reminder of the lack of attention female athletes receive. Research shows that although 40 percent of Division I college athletes are women, they receive only 6 percent to 8 percent of the media coverage.
That small amount of coverage "tends to gives the impression that women aren't interested in sports," Kane said, adding that when they are covered, reports emphasize their femininity over athletic prowess.