Title IX turns 50 years old this month. The landmark legislation formally sought to reverse the impact of pervasive sex discrimination on American women. When the Higher Education Amendments passed in 1972, Title IX prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational institution or program receiving federal aid.
Title IX has since increased access to educational opportunities for three generations of American women, while forcing a sea change in women’s athletics from youth sports to the upper echelons of Olympic and professional competition.
At Merced College, which opened to students in Fall 1962, the men’s athletics program began the following academic year, 1963-64. The Blue Devil Athletics Department didn’t include a women’s sport until 1971, a year before Title IX was passed.
That didn’t make the college wrong. The college now features a balanced athletics department with seven women’s programs and seven men’s programs.
That also doesn’t make the college unique. It simply shows the work that has been done in U.S. schools over the past five decades to increase equity.
“We were very blessed to have [original athletics director] Don Odishoo guide us from the start,” said women’s basketball coach Allen Huddleston Sr., whose 29-year tenure included coaching the first generation of Title IX athletes showing up on campus. “It has been a different story adapting to Title IX here at the college with a supportive administration.”
How it started
According to annual course catalogs, Blue Devil athletics started in 1963 with varsity men’s programs in basketball, wrestling, baseball and tennis. The college added football and golf for the 1964-65 academic year and track and cross country in 1965-66.
Coming on the heels of Title IX’s passage, volleyball was the first women’s team in 1971. The school began adding women’s cross country, tennis, softball, swimming, track and field and water polo several years later.
The college’s athletics slate has fluctuated the past 50 years. Tennis, cross country, wrestling and golf are no longer offered. According to outgoing athletics director Steve Cassady, Blue Devil softball shut down when coach Sheryl Wiens retired in 1986. There was no team in 1987, but it returned in 1988 when Cassady took over as coach. The college also permanently added women’s basketball for the 1992-93 season.
“We added women’s basketball, not only to come into compliance with Title IX, but because it was the right thing to do,” said E. Jan Kehoe, the Merced College president at the time.
Most recently, Merced College shuttered men’s soccer after the 1999 season and women’s soccer after 2002. Title IX requires institutions to respond to community desires. So, still hearing a consistent clamor for soccer from annual student-interest surveys, the college brought back both teams in 2021.
Title IX wanted schools to increase opportunities for women proportional to what existed for men based on their demographics, but it wasn’t as simple as adding women’s teams to match the numbers of male athletes.
Kehoe said they first had to understand that no single women’s team could balance numbers from a football team. Also, it was difficult to find additional money to pay for startup costs like uniforms or facility additions or upgrades, and then also build a budget to fund annual operating expenses like salaries, travel and per diems.
How it’s going
Merced College now supports roughly 350 athletes in football, women’s volleyball, baseball, softball, and men’s and women’s squads in basketball, soccer, water polo, swimming and diving, and track and field.
Volleyball coach Jessica Casey said she had a great situation when she started coaching in 2004 because Cassady, the athletics director at the time, coached women and advocated for women’s sports.
Casey, 45, represents the second generation of Title IX, which grew up as the legislation helped rip down a curtain of myths about women’s athletic capabilities.
“I can’t even imagine being told I can’t do something because of my gender,” she said. “It’s not something we even whisper around the water cooler anymore.”
Current Merced High volleyball coach Patricia Flanagan-Khodikian says community colleges allow athletes to extend their careers and help them strengthen their chances of playing at a four-year school.
Flanagan-Khodikian, 30, is part of the third generation of Title IX, the one that easily found opportunities and increasingly better coaching at the “next level” while playing volleyball at Stone Ridge Christian High, for Casey at Merced College, and for another two years at NAIA Hope International University in Fullerton.
Ironically, Flanagan-Khodikian admits she knew nothing of Title IX until she was a college senior studying college sports management.
That is not a knock on her. It actually shows how far women’s sports has come that she had the luxury of not knowing how deeply Title IX informed her athletics career.
“Everywhere I have played and coached have been places where they worked hard at equity in athletics,” Flanagan-Khodikian said. “I had a blast as an athlete because of that. Now, as a coach, anytime my girls are on the fence about playing in college, I can tell them to just give it a chance.”
Where it’s headed
Because of the overall growth in women’s athletics, coaching women’s sports is a legitimate career path. But it has also created a preponderance of male coaches coaching women’s teams.
Two of 11 Blue Devil head coaches are women—Casey, who will be coaching her 19th season at the college in Fall 2022, and former Blue Devil softball standout Suzanne McGhee, who just finished her 14th season this spring.
“I’ve been trying to train [one of my players] to take over for years,” Huddleston said. “I’ve seen so many young women who would make outstanding coaches. It’s important that they come back and share their skill.”
Flanagan-Khodikian, who also coaches for the Twisters local travel volleyball team, added, “As soon as we see someone with a drive for the sport, we tell them they should coach. It’s not just a job. When you’ve followed that path yourself, you realize which life skills you’ve learned from competing—being a good teammate, grit, a strong work ethic and how to remain calm under pressure.”
Casey agrees women’s sports at all levels need more women coaches and administrators.
“We need those female voices,” she said. “And they need to get paid. The WNBA and women’s soccer have been fighting for equal pay for years. When the amount of work athletes put into their craft is equal, but women are being paid dramatically less, we’re still fighting that battle.”
Moving forward, Title IX will also be tested by how successfully schools protect LGBTQ+ students. In 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Adams v. The School Board of St. Johns County Florida affirmed that Title IX also protects people who face discrimination for their gender identity and sexual orientation.
“I think female athletes are doing amazing things right now, and it’s so fun to watch and to be a part of,” Casey said. “But [equity in athletics] is still a fight. It’s a conversation we should continue to have.”