During my freshman year in high school, I researched Title IX for a speech. The year was 1996. Women’s sports were about to explode. A budding dual sport athlete, I was inspired by the female powerhouses I watched on my television screen.
That summer, the Atlanta Olympics introduced me to my heroes: Mia Hamm, Lisa Leslie, the Magnificent Seven gymnastics team and Jackie Joyner Kersee. As they shared and often stole the spotlight from the men, I finally saw women champions. The limelight of the Olympics and researching Title IX affirmed the possibility that becoming a scholarship athlete was possible— even for a lanky, small town, 14-year-old girl. This goal came to fruition when I received a full scholarship to the University of Illinois at Chicago to play Division 1 volleyball.
A little over 20 years later, students researching Title IX will have a very different story to tell.
A few weeks ago, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos scaled back the protections of Title IX that deal with sexual harassment and abuse. At the beginning of September in a speech at George Mason University, DeVos declared: “Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined.”
According to The Washington Post, the Obama administration used the threat of withholding federal funding to colleges and universities who did not respond quickly and comprehensively to protect students reporting sexual assaults. Victims could push to have their attackers expelled from campus instead of going through the pain of a criminal trial, and they could file a Title IX complaint if leaders didn’t respond appropriately. The Obama-era changes also moved the evidence bar from the criminal case “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard to a lower standard called “preponderance of evidence.” This standard in particular is what DeVos took issue with as something that went against the due process rights of the accused. Currently, under DeVos’ interim plan, all of the college campuses across the nation will have a choice in which standard they use to try cases of sexual harassment and assault.
With so many other issues in our nation’s flawed public education system to tackle—equity, discrimination, special education, our student’s achievement versus the achievement of other well-developed nations—this major announcement essentially giving more protections to accused rapists seems to me highly misplaced and disturbing.
Title IX needs a champion—and it needs one now. What if the sports heroes of Title IX formed the frontlines of the fight against campus sexual assault? Imagine if our strong professional and collegiate female athletes took a firm stance for sexual assault victims, sending a message that violence against any woman hurts all women.
Imagine Serena Williams, Breanna Stewart, Carli Lloyd or Simone Biles taking on the likes of Brock Turner with PSAs, speeches and promotional gear. Just as beneficial as it was for me and for young girls to see strong women athletes as role models, think of how much their support and platforms would mean for the victims of sexual assault.
Many female athletes are already on the front lines of activism, like Stewart and her Seattle Storm teammates—who organized both a pre-game rally and a video to support Planned Parenthood and took on U.S. Soccer in federal court over an equal pay dispute. Several teams in the WNBA have worn Black Lives Matter t-shirts as warm-ups and taken a knee. Soccer star Megan Rapinoe speaks out about LGBTQ rights, filed complaints against wage discrimination in her sport and took a knee in support of Colin Kaepernick’s stance against racial injustice. Standing up for the rights of all women to be protected, to have the courage to speak out when we are harmed and to take on a number of institutions that have historically sided with the accused can be a powerful message that all female athletes can approach in unity.
Billie Jean King once said: “I wanted to use sports for social change.” Recently, our nation has been turning its eyes to athletes as leaders of social change. We need strong women to fight against both the ideas and the actions of the Trump administration. Just as the women of the nineties took female sports to the next level, our current female stars need to take advocacy for women’s rights to that next, much-needed level.