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Hughes gets White House invite for Title IX affair

Olympic gold medalist teams up with other accomplished women to celebrate equality

Sarah Hughes poses for a picture with Nancy Lieberman, who was the youngest person ever to play basketball in the Olympic Games.
Sarah Hughes poses for a picture with Nancy Lieberman, who was the youngest person ever to play basketball in the Olympic Games. (courtesy of Sarah Hughes)

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By Sarah Hughes, special to icenetwork.com
(06/22/2012) - I already know what you're thinking. "Another article Sarah's written on Title IX?!?" After my blog on National Girls and Women in Sports Day in February and "At 40 years, Title IX is anything but over the hill" just last month, if that thought popped into your head, it's OK. I'm feeling ya.

But maybe I'm wrong.

Maybe your first thought after seeing the headline is "Which cool female athletes and superstars are going to be in this article?" Worry not, my dear friends. You're a figure skating crowd and I just KNOW what you're REALLY wondering is "What did she wear?" See, I know my audience at least a little.

Let's face it, the White House is a scorching hotbed of fashion these days. Alongside those stylish dresses being worn in the West Wing are some impressively toned arms. Arms that have contributed to the First Lady's "Let's Move" initiative and muscles that carried an energy-infused "Title IX 40th Anniversary Celebration" to life Wednesday afternoon.

I was invited by Valerie Jarrett, assistant to the president for Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, and Tina Tchen, chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama and executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, to attend the celebration and host a mentoring session for girls ages 13-17 from nearby schools. The gathering also featured a video tribute starring none other than University of Tennessee coaching legend Pat Summit; remarks by government officials to discuss the past, present and future of this landmark legislation; panel discussions streamed live on the White House's official website; and a mentoring session with girls from Girl Scouts and Girls Inc.

Title IX's true 40th birthday is this Saturday, June 23. It was 40 years ago "when 37 words became a law in the United States and the world changed," Tchen said after welcoming us to the White House.

Those 37 words that changed our world?

"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of 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."

When Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education read those words Wednesday, he noted that "as the president has pointed out, Title IX doesn't even mention sports." Valerie Jarrett supported his sentiment in the far-reaching effects of the Title IX legislation and spoke of how its effects in the classroom and on the field complement each other. Female athletes, she noted, enter the workforce in higher numbers than non-athletes and have a higher high school graduation rate than their non-athlete counterparts.

From the time President Obama signed an executive order creating The White House Council on Women and Girls on March 11, 2009, Jarrett and Tchen have been actively supporting the movement for equality in federally funded activities. The president declared that the council's purpose is to "ensure that each of the agencies in which they're charged takes into account the needs of women and girls in the policies they draft, the programs they create, the legislation they support." The true purpose of our government, he continued, is "to ensure that in America, all things are still possible for all people."

Jarrett shared a few anecdotes about President Obama and how much he loves coaching his 11-year-old daughter Sasha's softball team, something she says that those around him hear about all the time.

"He comes up with drills and strategies for the team," she said, noting how the White House doesn't just talk the talk; it walks the walk.

Senator Birch Bayh, the co-author and sponsor of Title IX, attributes his motivation in getting the law passed as recognizing a simple fact.

"The concern I had was you had 53 percent of American people," he said, who "happen to be women. You can't ignore their brainpower. If you give a person an education, whether it's a boy or girl, young woman or young man, they will have tools necessary to make a life for their families, for themselves and for their country."

At breakfast one morning, he explained the importance of what he was working on to his young daughter, telling her "little girls need strong bodies to carry their minds around just as little boys do."

Forty years later, he says, "Title IX has exceeded our expectations because we didn't realize how much discrimination was out there."

The first panel discussion showed just how far we've come as a nation in including every citizen in helping to make this country as productive as possible. "Intergenerational Views on the Impact of Title IX in Athletics" was moderated by Bonnie Bernstein (ESPN broadcaster and former all-American gymnast) and featured tennis great Billie Jean King (founder of the Women's Sports Foundation), Aimee Mullins (athlete, actress and model), Shoni Schimmel (collegiate basketball player at University of Louisville), Tom Perez (assistant attorney general for U.S. Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Justice) and Laurel J. Richie (president of the WNBA).

Highlights from their panel included their answers to the question of how sports has shaped their lives and how their involvement in sports had a positive impact on those around them.

King: Sports taught her the "resiliency" she needs to survive. As a small businesswoman, she says no matter how she feels when she gets up, she knows she must keep moving.

"Keep moving, or it's all over," she shared of the advice her 90-year-old mother told her, to which everyone laughed. In all seriousness, her attitude in sports is similar to her attitude in life.

"I think of losing as feedback," she said, a secret to her resiliency -- and success.

Perez: "Being part of a team." The Civil Rights Department is a team, and being in sports taught him how to do that. You need to understand your role, and it's always changing. Sometimes you need to be a shooter and "sometimes you're a point guard."

Mullins: "Being a leader. Leadership starts from a personal place," she said. Once you find that, "you have to stand up for what you believe in."

Being a double-leg amputee since she was a year old, she grew up in a world without Google.

"You couldn't just enter 'amputee athlete' into a search engine and find a list of people who were like you," she said. Getting involved with sports, she said, changed her relationship with her body since "my connection to the ground has always been imagined." Running taught "me how to own my body."

Plus, she made a good point when she revised the definition of a "disabled athlete."

"A skier going 70 mph down a hill who is blind isn't disabled. They're super-abled!"

Schimmel: Schimmel grew up on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, a place that is hard to escape. By playing basketball, she was able to attend Louisville, get an education and be an inspiration for other kids on the reservation.

"Getting off the reservation was an opportunity for me to go out there and prove you can do it," she said.

Schimmel's younger sister, Jude, didn't have to look far for inspiration: she also attends Louisville and plays on the basketball team alongside her older sister.

Richie: Running the WNBA is much like playing on a team sport. "You have to bring your personal best, but then do whatever you need to make the team work," she said. "It is the balance of the individual and the team. You must be in constant calibration. You have to know when to go out to the front and when to support."

The second panel discussion, "Advancing Our Commitment to Title IX in Education," balanced the mission of Title IX in athletics with the effect it's had on education. The panelists (including doctor and astronaut Mae Jeminson, the first black woman to travel in space) spoke of the importance of providing guidance and support -- and requiring equal access to educational programs and resources -- to local and state governments, and educational institutions, in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields).

Most recently, a move to increase STEM fields in the public education system has been bolstered by the government; it has allocated a wider portion of grants to states for improving teacher education in those areas so students can begin their education in STEM fields at a younger age. By increasing the access and participation to more STEM fields, we could raise a generation of more people -- not just girls -- who accomplish feats similar to Jeminson. Research shows that when more girls participate in an activity, more boys do too.

Nancy "Lady Magic" Lieberman and I held a mentoring session with some Girl Scouts and girls from Girls Inc., later in the afternoon. Lieberman became the youngest basketball player in Olympic history (male or female) at 18 years old -- then became the oldest player to ever play in the WNBA when she came out of retirement to play in the league in 1997, its inaugural year. Eleven years later, in 2008, she broke her own record to play in one WNBA game at the age of 50. Just because she could.

One of the best questions one of the Girl Scouts asked me was what my thoughts were on these types of gatherings when I was her age. She is 17. My answer is this:

I grew up in a world with Title IX. She is too. I was given opportunities to be involved in sports. She is too. My mother was not. Generations before us were not.

When I was named the Women's Sports Foundation "Sportswoman of the Year" my senior year of high school, I learned my own history teacher, who was an avid runner, was denied the opportunity to compete because there wasn't a women's team. That was unfathomable to me. So events and celebrations like we had this past Wednesday are important because knowing our own history is important. We must remember the time when it was different, not just so we can celebrate the way it is today, but so we can continue to move forward.

P.S. As promised, wardrobe details: Peach linen dress is by Alice & Olivia. Nude patent pumps by Stuart Weitzman. Many fabulously colorful outfits worn by the women. Men wore standard suits with ties.

And Billie Jean? She wore a pair of her trademark brightly colored glasses, like the ones that have become all the rage during the recently concluded NBA playoffs.