A handful of decent athletes hailed from our Cheyenne, Wyo., neighborhood, one made up mostly of Catholic families like ours, where eight children were the norm rather than the exception. There was no shortage of pickup games, the sport changing with the season from football to basketball to baseball.
My sister, Molly, was one of the better athletes in the lot. Unfortunately for her, this was during the 1960s, before Title IX afforded female athletes with the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Molly never got a chance to display her athletic skills in organized sports.
If only she had grown up a decade later, she could have been Dawn Staley.
The generation before me had no aspirations of being in sports because it wasnt prevalent, it wasnt available to them, says Staley, USCs fifth-year womens basketball coach. I dreamed big. I was able to dream big because there was opportunity. There were carrots dangled in front of me, whereas the generation before me didnt have that.
All credit goes to Title IX, the landmark federal legislation that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Without that legislation, Staley never would have attended college, much less graduated from the University of Virginia. She never would have led Virginia to three Final Four appearances and earned three gold medals as a member of the United States Olympic team.
If not for Title IX, Staley never would have played eight seasons of professional basketball. She never would have coached eight seasons at Temple, and she certainly never would have reached the $750,000 annual payout she earns at USC.
I would not have gone to college, at all, Staley says. That was my life. I dont know how bored I would be being trapped in that life. Thats not to say that life is boring, but my life has always been in sports. ... If I didnt have the outlet to play, I dont think I would have blossomed into what I am today.
From the time she could dribble a basketball, Staley competed with boys. The daily pickup games through rain, snow and 102-degree heat were staged on The Big Field, a concrete area surrounded by the eight, 13-story buildings that comprised the Raymond Rosen Housing Projects in Philadelphia.
The projects were known for producing top-level athletes like NBA players Lewis Lloyd and Rasheed Wallace, NFL star Marvin Harrison and middleweight boxing champion Bernard Hopkins.
Throughout her teen years in the 1980s, Staley brought her own basketball from her home in the projects, so she was guaranteed a spot in any game, despite always being the only female. She says her playing skills earned her a reputation for being one of the guys.
What Staley shared with the boys was a dream, a desire to take her game to not only the high school she attended, Dobbins Tech, but also to college. She was among the first generation of young women who, because of Title IX, was afforded such an opportunity.
Its kind of neat to see how it all evolved, and its appreciated, Staley says. I dont know where I would be had I not been given the opportunity to go to college, number one, and also to aspire to do all the other things I was able to achieve.
All of that came from people who fought before us. They just wanted the opportunity. They knew once they had the opportunity, they would be successful. They were at the top of their sport. They got that opportunity because of things they fought for. They wouldnt settle.
According to The Sport Journal, womens participation in college athletics was 15 percent four decades ago upon the implementation of Title IX. By 2001, the participation mark had climbed to 43 percent. Female participation in high school sports went from 295,000 in 1971 to 2.8 million in 2003, and continues to climb.
As a poster child for Title IX, Staley now gives back to the game that has so rewarded her by coaching at an NCAA Division I program. She also returns to Philadelphia every summer to watch games at the Hank Gathers Recreation Center.
There she sees young women playing basketball in organized leagues for girls. She sees in every one of these groups that there could be another Dawn Staley who, because of Title IX, can realize the dream of being an athlete.