50 years since Title IX, BYU women just had a banner year

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PROVO β€” Something special is happening with BYU women's athletics, but it didn't just begin this year.

In the half-century since the introduction of landmark legislation that changed the landscape of education and sports in the United States, the Cougars' athletic department has been nearly unstoppable.

The most noticeable jump, perhaps, will come this year β€” and as Title IX turns 50 years old Thursday, it's only fitting to take a look at the past season the Cougars women have held, winning national titles, breaking records, and setting historic marks both on campus and beyond.

From national titles in cross country and track and field to championship runs in soccer to the continued elevation of a women's volleyball program that has been among the nation's best for over a decade, BYU is proving to be a school where female athletes thrive.

And in many ways, it all goes back to those 37 words written in 1972 that never mentioned sports.

"I don't think you can talk about this past year, or even the last couple of years without talking about the foundation," Liz Darger, BYU's senior associate athletic director and senior women's associate, told KSL.com. "In the 50th anniversary of Title IX, it's on a lot of our minds, looking at the history of women's athletics at BYU.

"Look at foundational figures like Lu Wallace and Elaine Michaelis, and coaches over the years, that set a foundation for success for BYU women's athletics. The success isn't anything new, but these past couple of years, it feels like a moment β€” and I think a lot of that has to do with our mindset as we dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot of programs were on their heels, and it would've been easy to fold up our tents and go home. But people wanted to find a way to play and compete, and we decided to be agents that acted and not just objects acted upon; we wanted to be intentional and deliberate, and our athletes did that."

Perhaps nowhere was that attitude more on display than in the Cougars' recent track and field and cross country seasons. In the past year, the program racked up four national champions, more than two dozen All-Americans, nine conference titles, 10 school records, and the first set of back-to-back top-10 finishes at the outdoor meet since 2000.

But from another Sweet 16 appearance in women's volleyball to cross country titles to women's soccer in the program's first-ever College Cup championship, BYU women ran down the 2021-22 season faster than national champion steeplechaser Courtney Wayment in the final 200 meters of the fifth-fastest time in U.S. history.

"Thanks to Title IX and the many pioneers in women's sports before us, me and Courtney stand here today as national champions," said BYU javeline thrower Ashton Riner, who won the first national title in a women's field event at BYU since 1992. "We want girls and women everywhere to enjoy the opportunities we have had."

What is Title IX?

Ironically, the words "sports" and "athletics" aren't among the 37 words pronouncing Title IX in the law for schools or any other educational program that receives government funding.

But there's no doubt the original text, which was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972, has played a massive role in the increased proliferation of sport for women β€” both in the amateur, collegiate and professional ranks β€” in the 50 years since.

"No person in the United States shall, based on sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance," the legislation reads.

The law has had plenty of effects on education, but the rise in women's participation in athletics has exploded since its inclusion. It exploded the NCAA landscape and launched numerous U.S.-based professional leagues in basketball, soccer, volleyball, lacrosse and more.

"There's no question that fan support or media support helps, but we have student-athletes and coaches that are going to worry about what's in their control," Darger said. "They are going to get their motivation from a place that is intrinsic, because they want to be the best.

"They want to compete, and they want to win. They don't let any perceived lack of support of attention be a distraction to what their goals are. And as a result, the media attention comes, the fans come, the resources come, but their focus continues to be on that motivation that comes from inside of them to be the best that they can be."

It also takes work. While Title IX has led to an explosive expansion of women's sports opportunities, it also has limitations and imperfections that are working themselves out.

BYU's Whittni Orton finished 18th in the 5,000 meters last year at the NCAA women's track and field championships in Eugene, Oregon before winning the individual title at the 2021 cross country national championships in the fall.
BYU's Whittni Orton finished 18th in the 5,000 meters last year at the NCAA women's track and field championships in Eugene, Oregon before winning the individual title at the 2021 cross country national championships in the fall. (Photo: Nate Edwards, BYU Photo)

Before Title IX, only 15% of college athletes were women. Today, 44% of opportunities to play go to women, with more than 3 million high school girls and 200,000 college women in the ranks.

There's still work to do, though. Although opportunities exist to compete in collegiate athletics, an investigation by USA Today found that women's college programs still lag well behind their male counterparts in resources, funding and staffing. Nearly 80% of educational institutions have yet to reach full compliance, according to the investigation.

One area shortening the gap is the NCAA's new name, image and likeness policies. Female athletes represent less than half of all college athletes, but they represent some of the most connected and marketable in the social media age. That's a key reason why Jonathan Oliver, CEO of Provo-based tech company Smarty, recently pledged around $6,000 to every BYU women's athlete to aid their training and class time in exchange for their non-exclusive NIL rights for use with company branding, promotions and other #SmartyAthletes events.

One year after the landmark deal, the return has been immense β€” not just for Smarty, but for BYU's women athletes, as well.

"There are so many parts that come into play: the athletes themselves and their hard work can't be overstated," said Oliver, a BYU corporate sponsor who has seen new job interest at Smarty from recent grads skyrocket in the past year. "But then there's incredible coaches, which is a huge component. And NIL is just the icing on the cake; everything was set to happen anyway, but we wanted to come in and put an extra spotlight on it.

"The (22-time national champion) Cougarettes were dominant before, soccer was a powerhouse before. Everything was moving that direction, and we just wanted to put a spotlight on it."

But the athletic department can't do what they do without sponsorships like Smarty, either, Darger said.

"NIL has opened up a different way to help them support our athletes, but there are other traditional ways like corporate sponsorships and donations to help fund facilities and resources for our student-athletes," she added. "We absolutely cannot be successful without them; we count on Cougar Nation, from fans, to those who give at the highest levels. It can't be understated how critical it is that we have people willing to invest in our student-athletes, and in particularly, in women's athletics."

'Sisterhood' at BYU

Moments after Jennifer Rockwood led BYU women's soccer to its first-ever College Cup semifinal with a 4-1 win over South Carolina at South Field, the tenured Cougar coach of more than 30 years was mobbed away from the pitch.

It wasn't by her players or rows of students and supporters celebrating her achievement. It was a small mob, one consisting of fellow BYU women's coaches β€” all females β€” as they hooped and hollered and Ole'd at the coach who led women's soccer into the NCAA in 1995 and has steadily built the program ever since.

It was the kind of sisterhood that BYU women athletes display every day, too, since last fall when these coaches brought their women's teams at BYU together to talk about the shared values of their teams, the programs and the university sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

There is strength in numbers, and even more strength in ties that bind. When one athlete succeeds, they all succeed.

"There definitely is a sisterhood," said Darger, who also sits on the young women general advisory council for the church. "And part of that has been very intentional efforts from the coaches of our women's teams, like coach Diljeet Taylor (of cross country and track and field), Heather Olmstead (women's volleyball), Jen Rockwood (soccer), Holly Hasler (tennis) and Carrie Roberts (golf), and even more, have put together very intentional efforts to bring together their athletes.

"Part of it just happens because you're women who can relate to each other. But there have also been some very intentional efforts, and I give a lot of credit to our women coaches who have tried to help them create opportunities, as well. We're seeing the effects of that."

That sisterhood extends to the fans, as well.

When BYU women's basketball star Paisley Harding showed out to each game of her senior season, she'd seek out young Payton in the stands, the young girl looking up to her as she led the Cougars to their highest ranking in program history, a rare WCC regular-season title, and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

But she wasn't alone; as thousands of fans flocked to the Marriott Center to discover Provo's best-kept secret in 2021-22, they were met by a grateful squad, a willing host, and a team out to prove that women's sports can be just as exciting as their men's counterparts.

"The great thing about BYU women's basketball games is the way they interact with their fans," Oliver said. "The men's team is just so busy, with so many people β€” good luck. But every time I took my kids to women's games, we had a long time with Cosmo, with each player; it was great. And that's what you get at women's games."

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