Birch Bayh
Birch Bayh
The idea that a high school girls basketball team could draw as many fans as the boys team wasn’t common in early-1980s Indiana.

It happened in Sullivan. Throughout the winters, fans streamed into the old downtown gym to watch the Lady Arrows, with a roster of players that led Sullivan to the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s girls tournament’s single-class Final Four in 1982 and numerous sectional titles. The seats were just as full for those Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon games, as for the Golden Arrows boys’ games on Friday and Saturday nights.

Anyone watching, including a young sportswriter under this same byline, could see the young women on the floor wanted to compete, excel, win and have fun, every bit as much as the boys.

That happened less than a decade after Vigo County native Birch Bayh shepherded Title IX into federal law. As a result, millions of young women and families have witnessed that same energy that folks in Sullivan experienced 40 years ago. Title IX opened up once-male-dominated opportunities in education to young women in athletics, the classroom, jobs and financial aid, as well as providing protections against discrimination, violence on campus and retaliations. President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law in 1972, after then-Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana coauthored the legislation with U.S. House Reps. Patsy Mink of Hawaii and Edith Green of Oregon.

Though it still hasn’t achieved full equality for girls and women in K-through-12 and college athletics, Title IX’s impact is significant. As the law marked its 50th anniversary this month, a report from the Women's Sports Foundation illuminated the progress made. Compared to 1972-73, when Bayh and his congressional colleagues penned the law in 1972, there are three million more high school sports opportunities for women. Sixty- percent of girls participate in a high school sport, though still shy of the 75% participation mark for boys. On the college level, there are 215,486 women competing for their schools, compared to 29,977 in 1971-72. Women make up 44% of all college athletes today, compared to just 15% before Title IX.

I interviewed Bayh in 2005, and he explained the influence he felt from both his late wife, Marvella, and his father, Birch Bayh Sr.

Bayh’s dad coached four men’s sports at Indiana State Normal School (which later became Indiana State University), served as its athletic director and was a physical education professor. Bayh Sr. also coauthored one of the nation’s first phys ed manuals for public schools. So, the guy understood fitness and how to teach it.

Eventually, Bayh Sr. took a job in Washington, D.C., as supervisor of phys ed programs for the District of Columbia public schools. One morning after the family moved to D.C., they sat together for breakfast and the elder Bayh informed his wife and kids that he’d been asked to testify before Congress about physical education in schools. His son Birch Jr. remembered the moment well.

“And he said, ‘I’m going to tell them they need to implement physical education classes for little girls, just like those for little boys, because little girls need strong bodies, too,’” Sen. Bayh recalled in that 2005 Tribune-Star interview. “And that was such a strong statement.” The senator got another nudge to act from his wife, Marvella. A straight-A high school student in Oklahoma, Marvella applied to enroll at the University of Virginia. She received a rejection notice from the university, Birch explained, that read: “Women need not apply.” Marvella, who died of cancer in 1979, eventually earned a degree in education from Indiana University in 1960, the same year Birch earned his IU law degree while also serving in the Indiana General Assembly.

Title IX led to changes in the inequities Bayh’s father and wife saw. It read: “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.”

The progress isn’t complete, and the law has always had critics. Some colleges have eliminated men’s sports, such as wrestling and gymnastics, to comply with the law’s requirement for equal opportunities among the genders. Often, those colleges maintain football programs, which include as many as 63 or 85 scholarship positions, making it difficult to achieve a balance with women’s scholarships because no other sports carry as many student- athletes. So, so-called “non-revenue” men’s sports get cut to preserve a money- making football program and help even the numbers toward Title IX compliance.

“My heart goes out to those wrestlers,” Bayh said in that 2005 interview. But those colleges’ economic choices are to blame, not Title IX, he added.

Bayh was right. Just a week before that interview, Bayh attended the 2005 NCAA women’s basketball Final Four banquet at Indianapolis. The attendees greeted him with gratitude.

“The number of people that came up to me and said, ‘If it wasn’t for Title IX, I not only wouldn’t have had the chance to play intercollegiate athletics, but I wouldn’t have had the chance to get an education,’ was amazing,” said Bayh, who died in 2019 at age 91.

And those Lady Arrows games in a packed Sullivan downtown gym were pretty amazing, too.
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