Rep. Danice Picraux remembers playing basketball for her high school in New York City. "We wore funny-looking gym outfits," Picraux says. "We didn't even have uniforms."
As a public school athlete, Picraux played for a team struggling under limiting rules and poor facilities—hurdles male athletes didn't face. "We only played half court because we were girls and couldn't cope with running the full court," says Picraux. "We didn't get buses. Parents and coaches would drive."
Picraux was in school before 1972’s Title IX, a law meant to prevent gender discrimination in public school programs. "The world was quite different then," she says.
Picraux stopped waiting for all New Mexico schools to actively enforce the 37-year-old law, so at the beginning of the 2009 legislative session she sponsored the School Athletics Equity Act (HB 432). The bill passed unanimously in the House and Senate in March, and Gov. Bill Richardson signed the measure into law on Tuesday, April 7.
“I would've been surprised had he not signed it,” says Picraux, now in her 19th year as a legislator. “He's talked about gender equality, and his cabinet has many women appointees.”
Picraux sweat on the courts when girls' school teams were regarded as little more than club sports, even though she played varsity. "We were treated very differently to the boys," she says. "It was not the same coaching and the same demand. We didn't have that sense of achievement through athletics. You did it for fun—and that should be achievement enough—but you only did it for fun. The boys had that encouragement."
Picraux has three daughters, all of whom played soccer at Albuquerque High. “My daughters were Title IX daughters,” she says. “They played more aggressive team sports; boys and girls got on the same bus to play La Cueva. They experienced a whole different sense of camaraderie.” Her children knew it was fun, but serious, too, she adds. “They got a whole different sense of commitment from team sports.”
Athletics programs are among the most scrutinized under Title IX since it was signed into law, though the law applies to all public school activities. “Title IX has been lauded for its work in athletics, but my understanding of it is that it goes beyond athletics, to boys and girls in different clubs,” Rep. Picraux says. “It’s important that girls see their leadership opportunities supported, that they have clubs of their interest. It’s a broader scope than making sure both girls and boys are on the roster.”
Singling out the athletics program with her law is not punitive, Picraux says. "It provides a map of where we are and the next steps we're taking." Picraux points to the fact that there are professional female athletes but still not complete access for younger women at the public school level. "We're seeing women playing sports in college and in the Olympics," she says. "But there wasn't a support system for a lot of girls to get to that point."
The principles of Title IX are far-reaching, she says, but also straightforward in application. "It raises consciousness of importance of opportunity for women and to get the kind of support male counterparts are getting," she says. "If the boys have a coach, then so do the girls. If the boys have uniforms, so do the girls. If the boys have buses to the field, then so do the girls."
Her law adds transparency to the schools’ formerly self-policed enforcement of Title IX. It requires that middle and high schools submit reports about the athletics programs.
"Right now, the schools have data, but they keep it in the school,” she says. “And we're saying, Let's see the data.” Reports will include coaches' salaries and credentials, numbers of sports teams offered, and how funds for the athletic programs are being distributed. This information will be published on a site that will also list schools that fail to turn in reports. The evaluation also requires surveys of the kinds of sports teams students and parents want.
This is not about excluding men and boys from sports. “We aren’t saying there’s gender equality if only the girls come out to play," Picraux adds. "We’re saying, Why are there only two or three girls’ teams and five boys’ teams?"
Unequal access to sports programs limit other areas of life for students, she says. "Girls with athleticism have an outlet for energy. They learn strategy, particularly with good coaches, who can motivate kids, build skills and experience." The School Athletics Equity Act isn't just good for girls, Picraux finishes. "It makes a difference about how girls feel and how boys feel about other people who play sports."