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At 40 years, Title IX is anything but over the hill

Womens' athletics prove critical in inspiring female youth, encouraging structure

Boxing champion Laila Ali (left) with Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes.
Boxing champion Laila Ali (left) with Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes. (Courtesy of Sarah Hughes)

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By Sarah Hughes, special to icenetwork.com
(05/14/2012) - "When we talk about Title IX and sports," Laila Ali said to everyone gathered in the Rackham Amphitheatre -- kicking off "Title IX at 40: Progress and Promise, Equity for All," a three-day national conference held May 9-11 at the University of Michigan -- "I think, 'Where would I have been without boxing?'... Well, I don't know. I'm not a psychic!" she joked to the many undergrads in the audience before turning serious. "The first thought that comes to mind is, 'I wouldn't be me,'" Ali said.

"Growing up, I never played sports," Ali shared. "One thing I can tell you is where I would have been if I had not participated in sports -- and that's in trouble."

Ali speaks from experience. She says she found the role as daughter of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali more difficult than many would think, especially when coupled with the polished appearance she presents today.

Her mom was Muhammad Ali's third wife and they divorced when she was young. As a result, she grew up in a different state than her father, in an environment she describes as "unstructured." She often set her own rules: when to go to bed, when to wake up, who to hang out with (choosing the wrong crowd, she says) and going to school -- only if she felt like attending that day. By 16, she found herself in a juvenile detention hall after being caught shoplifting, among other legal scrapes.

How did she go from that to the motivating, engaging, successful entrepreneur she is today? She credits the structure she found in sports with helping to turn her life around. Surprisingly, even through she was born six years after Title IX -- the 1972 legislation that requires gender equality in all federally funded educational programs -- was passed, she didn't play sports as a kid. And even though her father is arguably the greatest boxer to ever live, she did not know women's boxing existed until she saw it on television while watching a Mike Tyson fight with friends.

Upon seeing women on the undercard, she was inspired to get involved.

"I just remember, I instantly was excited about the idea of women's boxing ... wanting to do it and feeling like I could do it."

At 18, she got in the ring. It changed the course of her life. By 2002, the International Boxing Association declared her the super middleweight champion, and in 2005, the International Women's Boxing Federation declared her the super middleweight champion. Today, she is a mother, author and founder of her own lifestyle brand that focuses on fitness and wellness. Later this year, she will unveil a signature line of fresh salsas, salad dressings, seasoning and marinades in stores nationwide.

But this past week, she spoke as the president of the Women's Sports Foundation, espousing the values of athletics in the lives of children and, as she found herself, young adults.

"Before I started, a lot of people didn't know women could even fight," she said.

Women's boxing will make its debut as an Olympic sport in London this summer, and she will call the matches from a studio in New York for NBC. Ali wishes she could have had the opportunity to compete in the Olympics.

"I didn't have that opportunity when I started boxing," she said. "It's a big regret of mine that I couldn't be out there with Venus [Williams] and Serena [Williams] and Lisa Leslie."

Creating these opportunities is the role of Title IX on a larger scale.

"It was a lack of opportunity, not a lack of interest, that kept girls out of sports for so long," Ali said.

The lessons she learned through boxing have stayed with her even though she no longer boxes.

"This is what I learned from boxing: discipline, structure, fearlessness, freedom, self-reliance, self-control," she said, as she ticked off a few of the many positive attributes reaped through being involved in sports. "I proved to myself through boxing that I can always win, whether I'm in the ring or out of the ring."

The three-day conference brought doctors, professors, legal scholars, economists, advocates and champion athletes together to share their experiences, research and visions to build awareness and appreciation for all that Title IX has done and hopes to do in the future.

My panel was focused on "Sports Injuries, Prevention, and Trends over the Past 40 Years." The first panelist, Dr. James Eckner, is the neurological consultant to the sports medicine program at University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and the U.S. National Team Developmental Program for ice hockey. His presentation was focused on the differences he has found in concussions between males and females (mostly NCAA athletes) within different sports and the severity to which the athletes are affected by them. (Women are reported to experience concussions more often and more severely.)

One of the studies he is doing right now uses special impact-sensing mouth guards to investigate head impact counts and impact characteristics between male and female high school ice hockey players.

My presentation followed Dr. Eckner. Fortunately, I had called Ken Dryden the prior evening. Dryden -- the Hall of Fame NHL goaltender, six-time Stanley Cup winner, former president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and member of the Parliament of Canada -- has been writing a flurry of articles on the issue of concussions in hockey over the past few months. In addition to sharing his latest findings with me, he also articulated many of his observations and insights on the issue.

Since my role on the panel was, naturally, to discuss the concussions I had suffered as a skater -- how they happened, what the symptoms were, how they were dealt with, etc. -- I spoke about that and then segued into my conversation with Dryden the night before. His findings clearly built on what my previous panelist had spoken about, and more broadly, on the issues organizations, such as the NHL, face in changing rules -- many of which overlap into the issues that challenge Title IX.

The final panelist spoke about his findings on ACL injuries and treatment. His presentation was more interesting than I would have ever thought, considering his research centers around why it is important to teach males and females to jump and land differently -- something skaters repeat tens, if not hundreds, of times a day. (These skaters don't include University of Michigan students Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Alex Shibutani and, this fall, Maia Shibutani. For those reading this blog who aren't skating nuts like the majority of us icenetwork readers, that's because they are ice dancers. Sadly, I did not run into them while I was in town -- it was a brief visit!)

My time in Michigan and experience with the Women's Sports Foundation and the SHARP (Sport, Health, Activity, Research, Policy) Center, which is funding much of this research was, as usual, superb and informative.

The atmosphere was open and inviting, with 8-year old Melody Korkmaz even securing an interview with Ali for a documentary film she is making on Title IX for the National History Project. Others in attendance, and I'm sure open to being interviewed by Melody for her project, included Olympic champion Benita Fitzgerald Mosley (track and field), economist Betsey Stevenson, Olympic champion Jennie Finch (softball), Olympic champion (swimming) and senior director of advocacy for the WSF, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, and many of the University of Michigan athletes.

The SuperWoman exhibit, featuring portraits of 40 star athletes in 40 sports (keeping in line with the theme of Title IX turning 40 in July), is on display at the Lane Hall Gallery, 204 S. State Street in Ann Arbor, Mich., through May 31. I represent the skating section and didn't get to stop by, so if you do, tweet a photo to @icenetwork, @SarahHughesNY or @WomensSportsFdn. One of us will RT!

You can follow Sarah on Facebook and Twitter at www.twitter.com/SarahHughesNY and www.facebook.com/SarahHughesNY.