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Professional commitments kept Bernice Sandler away from the Washington Mystics’ recent home opener. But while Sandler wasn’t among the 20,000 women’s hoop freaks who screamed for the area’s newest sports franchise as if it were Hanson, she was there from the beginning. The real beginning.

The Mystics debuted at the MCI Center on the week of the 26th anniversary of the educational amendments of 1972. The most notable of those amendments was Title IX, which ostensibly guarantees schoolgirls as much opportunity as schoolboys. Its language is spare: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participating in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” But what it lacked in linguistic artfulness, it more than made up for in impact—few federal edicts have so obviously compelled change in American society,

particularly in the athletic realm.

Were it not for Title IX, for example, women’s basketball wouldn’t have a market anywhere near big enough to justify the launching of a league so grand as the WNBA.

And were it not for Sandler, there might not be a Title IX.

Back in 1969, Sandler wasn’t looking to join the front lines of the fight for women’s rights or to give female jocks their rightful place alongside their male peers. She was just looking for a better job.

Sandler was a doctoral candidate and part-time teacher in the counseling department at the University of Maryland at College Park, and she had heard that seven staff positions in her field would soon be available. But department brass insinuated there would be no point in her applying for any of the jobs.

“I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t give me a chance,” recalls Sandler, now with the National Association for Women in Education, a D.C. group. “So I asked people what was going on, and a friend of mine in the department told me, ‘You come on too strong for a woman.’”

The explanation enraged Sandler and launched her personal crusade for justice. At the start, Sandler was sure that civil rights laws forbade the type of blatant discrimination the University of Maryland administration was showing her.

She quickly learned, however, how wrong she was.

“I was reading law books and everything I could get my hands on,” she says. “And I realized that when it came to sexual discrimination, schools weren’t covered by the civil rights acts. Every other kind of discrimination was—race, religion, national origin. But not sex. Colleges could do basically whatever they wanted. I couldn’t believe it.”

But Sandler kept digging, and the research paid off when she uncovered an executive order left over from the Johnson administration that prohibited federal contractors from practicing various forms of discrimination. And, unlike the civil rights legislation that was passed during his tenure, Johnson’s order included wording outlawing sexual bias.

“I was alone in my living room, reading through papers, when I found out about the existence of that order,” she says. “That was the only time in my life where I’ve been by myself and just started screaming. Even though that order wasn’t specific to schools, I knew I’d finally found something that I could use.”

Sandler decided that any college that received government money could be legally considered to be a federal contractor and therefore had to comply with Johnson’s executive order.

Sandler began compiling examples of sexual discrimination on U.S. campuses. Nowhere were the discrepancies between how men and women were treated greater than in sports. At the University of Michigan, Sandler discovered, the school’s administration budgeted $1 million per year for athletics. Of that total, the men’s programs got…$1 million.

“The women athletes at Michigan all sold apples at the football games just so they would have money for travel,” says Sandler. “Women coaches weren’t even paid anything. It was outrageous.”

Michigan was hardly alone, however. Before too long, Sandler had lodged sexual discrimination complaints with the Department of Labor—the agency in charge of federal employment mandates—against 250 colleges.

The filings brought notoriety to Sandler’s good fight. In the summer of 1970, Rep. Edith Green (D-Ore.) hired Sandler to help prepare for Congressional hearings on gender bias in higher education.

In preparation for the hearings, Green’s camp decided to downplay the prevalence of the injustices done to female athletes. The universities and colleges were a lot more worried about the shredding of biased admission policies.

But Green assured all concerned deans that she had no interest in changing the undergraduate admissions policies of private universities, so the universities’ lobbyists got out of the congresswoman’s way. Amazingly, not a single college athletic director or administrator testified at Green’s hearings, though Sandler invited many to do so.

“We didn’t want this to become an issue about athletics, because that would have made what we were trying to do much harder,” says Sandler. “But we knew—and the colleges apparently didn’t—that we were drawing up legislation that would impact every aspect of campus life.”

In 1972, Green drew up a bill that would become Title IX. In the other chamber, Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) took up the women’s rights torch and managed the legislation, which was passed and signed into law by President Nixon on June 23, 1972. Three years later, Title IX regulations went into effect, launching a wave in women’s athletics that has yet to crest. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, since Title IX’s passage, the number of girls participating in high school sports each year has increased by 2,000,000, while the number of boys participating has remained about the same. (A local example of how times have changed: Last month, the George Washington University board of trustees announced that it will phase in five new varsity sports over the next three years. Four of the new teams are reserved for women. Even before the announcement, more women at the school got athletic scholarships than men, by a count of 70 to 58.)

Sandler, now 70, says she’s not a huge basketball fan yet, though she blames her generation, not her gender. Even so, she wishes she’d been able to attend the Mystics’ opener and says she fully intends to catch a game soon. She takes obvious pride in the part she played in helping the women’s version of the sport reach its current prominence, so much that she shares war stories with young female athletes every now and then.

“Whenever I see a girls’ basketball team in an airport when I’m traveling, I feel very good about that, about the way they’re carrying themselves,” Sandler says. “Sometimes, I tell them that I had something to do with Title IX, but I don’t do that much anymore. Kids today—well, they don’t even know what Title IX is.”—Dave McKenna