Opportunities afforded by the landmark legislation have shaped millions of girls. One example is the David Douglas (Ore.) High girls basketball team, class of 1993, particularly Ami (Niiya) Brown, who became one of the first female firefighters in the Clackamas Fire District No. 1.
We played fast and hard, tiring our opponents with traps and quick layups before they realized that we didn’t always possess the skills to match up with them in the halfcourt. Yet our rag-tag team made the state playoffs two out of our four high-school years. In pale and provincial Portland, we walked onto the basketball court in all shades, all backgrounds. We were the David Douglas Lady Scots, class of 1993.
We were first-generation athletes; none of our mothers had real opportunities to play organized sports. The past, like a heavy fog, lingered over our play. The knowledge that it wasn’t very long ago that the ball fields and courts were mostly closed off to girls. We heard urban legends of girls who used to play basketball but weren’t allowed to run the entire court. Of athletes ridiculed as “unfeminine” or derisively labeled lesbians for wanting to participate. Of teams who had to fund themselves entirely through bake sales and sew their own uniforms.
And then Title IX arrived and changed the entire landscape of athletics for women and girls.
Title IX, a section of the Educational Amendments signed into law in 1972, effectively banned gender-based discrimination for any educational program or activity receiving federal funding, including athletics. The women’s movement, the strong leadership of key female athletes such as Billie Jean King and the passage of this law led to a huge insurgence of participation in women’s sports.
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In 1971, less than 300,000 girls played high-school sports. By 2010, high-school participation had jumped to over 3 million, an increase of over 1,000 percent.
As Title IX has aged, her reputation has become a little high brow. People tend to think of women’s teams at elite East Coast universities and moms and dads driving Subarus and drinking Starbucks while cheering their little girls on the soccer field on cool autumn Saturdays.
But is this a fair characterization? Has the law helped lift girls in every corner of America? And have greater opportunities to participate in sports made a difference in their outcomes?
Studies have shown female high-school athletes of all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic levels tend to have higher grades and higher graduation rates than non-athletes (72 percent versus 62 percent). Female athletes develop a more professional work ethic, have improved cognitive skills and higher self-esteem than non-athletes. In addition, girls who participate in sports have lower rates of obesity, cancer and mental illness as adults.
Ami and the Lady Scots
We grew up in East County, a working-class enclave of Portland. Think of the television show “Portlandia,” with dirt under its fingernails and a 9-to-5 timecard to punch. We kept part-time jobs on top of school and sports. We spent our summers making minimum wage in grease-stained polyester uniforms rather than attending exclusive basketball camps and playing on AAU travel teams. My senior year, I remember dribbling the ball down the court amidst a commotion in the stands. Parents from opposing schools were fighting in the bleachers. The game was stopped. “Friday Night Lights,” East County style.
The players on the 1993 Lady Scots are turning 40 this year. There are among us: teachers and coaches, a former hedge-fund manager, an international humanitarian aid worker, an MBA graduate with a successful small business. Many of us balance our careers with motherhood. The blueprints of our success were drawn through the blood, sweat and tears of our high-school sports careers.
Ami (Niiya) Brown was our star forward with mounds of dark curly hair piled high into a funky cloth hairband. Her long arms could pick off opponents’ passes from every corner of the court. Ami was also the emotional and scoring leader of our team.
Senior year of high school, while the rest of her teammates were agonizing over SAT scores and college admissions, Ami had her own big but less-conventional ambitions. She wanted to be a firefighter. With no female mentors to lean on, she got busy making her own path. She interviewed current firefighters, entered a fire-science program at a local college, started volunteering for a county fire department and earned her paramedic certification.
In 2000, Ami was hired by Clackamas County Fire District No. 1, the third female firefighter in the history of the department. Now there are six women out of 180 firefighters in the department, which makes 3.3 percent of the department female (the national average is 3.7 percent). In 2003, Ami became the department’s first woman to work as an Apparatus Operator. That gave her additional responsibilities, including driving to the scene of emergencies, laying fire hose and operating water pumps.
This path she carved wasn’t easy. Along with the support from family, friends and colleagues, she also encountered plenty of doubt and even blatant sexism. On a ride-along with a fire crew as a fire science student, she was verbally assaulted by a male firefighter. A superior once quipped, “Oh, don’t pull your girl card on me,” after Ami responded to something he had asked of her. Often, the sexism was much more subtle, she says. “Everyone, both men and women, are always afraid of the big H word (harassment).”
A turning point came during a routine fire drill during her fire academy. She had to carry a 6-foot-3, 200-plus-pound firefighter in full gear down a ladder from a second-story window. The other firefighters stood in awe as Ami, 5-7 and built more like a model than a linebacker, brought him down like a dream.
“They had their doubts,” she said, “but after that drill they said: ‘She’s good. She’s got this.’ ”
But even as a veteran firefighter of 15 years, she still has to prove herself to outsiders every day. Elderly women ask how she will be able to pick them up. Others inquire if she does all the cooking in the firehouse. When Ami answers the phone at the fire station, she is often asked, “Can I talk to one of the firemen?”
Ami, a mom to twin 6-year-old boys and wife to Zak, a lieutenant in the department, cites playing high-school sports as pivotal preparation for her firefighting career. She says that high-school athletics taught her to stay in top physical condition, to understand the importance of proper technique, to not shy away from tough physical work. Mentally, playing sports taught her to keep a positive attitude, to work as a team with all types of people and to learn from loss. Comparing the two, she explains, “Our practices are training drills. Game time is when the tones (alarms) go off.”
According to Ami, when recruiting women, her department specifically looks for those who have competed in sports, believing they have traits that make them good firefighters. “Girls who play sports simply have a drive others don’t have.”
Ami’s new dream? To have an all-women fire crew. “I would love that to happen before I retire. It would be amazing.”
More than trophies
If you go inside the main David Douglas gymnasium, you might notice a dusty, oak trophy case near the entrance. Among the golden war chest of aged trophies and plaques is an area dedicated to professional athlete alumni. Since the school opened in 1954, five David Douglas athletes have gone on to professional athletic careers in their respective sports. The final two plaques in the case: swimmer Kim Peyton, Class of 1975, and golf pro Allison Hanna, Class of 2000, the only two women of the group. The neighborhood impact of national legislation.
There is little doubt Title IX has been a success, but her work is not finished. Gender inequities in sports continue without consequences to the schools in violation. There has also been a sharp decrease in female head coaches since Title IX’s inception. Today only 40 percent of college women’s sports teams are coached by women. And Title IX has thus far failed to produce elite female athletes at the college and pro level that have rivaled the popularity of male athletes.
But that shouldn’t diminish the stories of how sports participation has shaped and improved the lives of girls. And in my little corner of the world, how this law has helped carry me and my teammates upward.