One of the best ways to celebrate what Title IX has meant in the 40 years since it was passed is to try to imagine what a drearier place sports would be without it. You can do it if you try. Imagine tennis without Martina Navratilova or Serena Williams, soccer without Mia Hamm and Brazil's Marta tearing down the flank, golf without Annika Sorenstam leaving Sweden for a golf scholarship at the University of Arizona and coming closer to perfect than anyone else had while dominating women's pro golf like no one had before, even if she never actually achieved her ideal round of 59.
Who would want to imagine a sports landscape like that?
What if heptathlete Jackie Joyner Kersee -- who went to UCLA at first on a basketball scholarship, remember -- had been told, "Hey you, you stay back there in downtrodden East St. Louis, all your greatness and potential undiscovered, because there's nowhere for you to play"?
What if we never got to know Lisa Leslie, the girl who once scored 100 points in a high school game and later dunked in WNBA games when she wasn't a runway model?
What if way back when, Billie Jean King -- the ground zero pioneer who started this all -- had just shut up and taken it when the men who ran tennis told her, "No one will ever pay to watch you birds play," instead of pushing and pushing until she'd helped drive Title IX to its passage by 1972? What if she hadn't paved the way for what she later called "our first generation of true 'professional' women athletes" -- women who, freed from the baggage of finding a place to play or making a living while doing it, could concentrate on optimal performance, which was another of King's goals all along?
It's important and fun to celebrate all of ESPN's Top 40 athletes of the Top 40 years as the last few names are rolled out this week.
But don't forget to spin the story forward too.
The fact that Title IX has survived to the ripe old age of 40 is almost as amazing as the idea that it was ever passed at all, given the sustained, occasionally ingenious, sometimes mean-spirited, sneaky and downright cynical attempts to roll it back or scrub it from the books completely.
Anyone who thinks this is one of those fights that is signed, sealed, delivered, over and done and won, just isn't paying attention. Because it's not.
Not as long as a whistleblower like Roderick Jackson had to push his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 to get his job back after he was fired for insisting on more equal treatment for his high school girls' basketball team. Not when a 15-year-old girl like Paige Sultzbach, who played second base for her high school's varsity boys baseball team because it had no softball team, is dragged through another case of adults in sports behaving badly. When Sultzbach's team got to the final of the Arizona Charter Athletic Association state tournament this spring, the private school team they were supposed to play defaulted rather than play against a girl.
That happened in 2012 America. The same 2012 America that has a pretty roiling political debate about whether there's a "war on women" over everything from birth control to workplace rights to, well, you name it.
Now granted, quoting a dry, just-minted academic report about Title IX isn't as fun as reliving stories of things athletes have said or done over the years. But here's an example of why making sure Title IX is protected is necessary: As the Washington Post just summarized in this recent article, when the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education -- a coalition of 40-plus national organizations chaired by the American Association of Women -- issued its report of Title IX at 40, the conclusions it reached and some of the arguments it sought to dispel still sounded 40 years old, too:
"Myth 1: Title IX requires quotas."
"Myth 2: Title IX forces schools to cut sports for boys and men."
"Myth 3: Men's sports are declining because of Title IX."
"Myth 4: Title IX requires schools to spend equally on male and female sports."
"Myth 5: Men's football and basketball programs subsidize female sports."
Are we really still having to shoot all this down? Still? Again?
The report's conclusion: Great progress has been made but more work needs to be done.
"The biggest problem for Title IX is that Title IX continues to be a convenient scapegoat for when men's athletic directors have to drop non-revenue sports because of the arms race and costs in football -- only 14 of 120 [football] programs actually make money," says University of Minnesota professor Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. "They can say 'Don't blame me. Title IX made me do it.' Or they can tell Urban Meyer the entire team can't stay in a hotel the night before every home game. He can't have private jets to fly around. He can't have 85 scholarships to hand out anymore. And then you'll see a new athletic director."
Revisiting such territory is dreary and tedious, all right. But if the reminder makes you more engaged or vigilant about making sure Title IX survives another 40 years of challenges and distortions, even better.
Because remember, it was just one administration ago that President George W. Bush's crew actually held hearings around the country to see if Title IX should be rolled back or even taken off the books, not just tweaked, and soccer star Julie Foudy, a child of Title IX, was at the forefront of the fight to keep it as is.
And remember, it was just two years ago that women ski jumpers finally won their long and pitched battle to be allowed into the Winter Olympics by 2014 over the objections of officials at their own international governing body who tried to chase them away with the same laughable fiction that women marathoners were told before they were finally allowed to run in the 1984 Olympics: Such exertions might damage their ability to have children.
By any measure -- travel, equipment, recruiting spending, participation slots -- boys and men in this country still enjoy more sports opportunities than women and still earn more money than women coaches for the same level of work, and most athletic departments are still not in compliance with Title IX.
There has never been a better time to be a female athlete, it's true. But look: More work needs to be done, all right.
A poet once wrote that one of the things we often mourn when something important is lost is the infinity of possibilities that are lost with it. All those things we'll never know.
The passage of Title IX has meant the opposite of that. It's a rousing success story and a love story and a sports story all rolled into one. It cracked open a whole new world for girls and women -- and not just in sports, but in society. It created opportunities that women literally and figuratively ran with until they had made men and boys -- not just themselves -- rethink what women are capable of in thrilling new ways. In the smaller subset of sports, Title IX helped blow up old canards and confronted people with cage-rattling new truths like this: If Venus Williams can serve at 129 mph -- faster than even the great Andre Agassi did in his prime -- doesn't that forever change the definition of what it means to serve "like a girl"?
Andre Agassi wishes he could, pal.
Most of all, Title IX has made it almost impossible for people who have come along since it was passed to imagine a world without it or a sports landscape that never had Mia and Serena, Annika and Jackie Joyner, Bonnie Blair and Julie Krone and Billie Jean and all the rest.
You could. But who in their right mind would want to?