“There is not anything that empowers girls and women the way sports do,” said Donna Lopiano, President and Founder of Sports Management Resources, at the recent conference, “Title X at 50: Past, Present, Future,” spanning three days of events at Northwestern University’s Evanston campus.   

Lopiano spoke to a crowd of more than 200 students, faculty, university administrators and area residents Saturday, Oct. 29, at one of three panels moderated by USA Today columnist Christine Brennan. 

Christine Brennan with NU students at the Title IX conference this past weekend at Northwestern University. Credit: Michele Weldon

For the discussion “An Examination of Gender and Racial Inequities in College Sports,” Lopiano shared the stage with Ketra Armstrong, Professor of Sport Management at the University of Michigan; and Amy Wilson, Managing Director of Inclusion at NCAA.

“Title IX is a law about producing better citizens,” said Brennan, also a CNN commentator, alum of NU ‘s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and member of NU’s Board of Trustees. “This is not just about sports. It’s a mindset. This is about our cultural, national history,” Brennan said at the event co-sponsored by Medill and the Office of The Provost.

Adapted in 1972, Title IX states, “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.”

Brennan added, ‘Northwestern cared about it back then and look how they care now.”

Unfortunately, adherence to Title IX is not the norm, with “90% of institutions not in compliance,” Lopiano said. 

To push for Title IX accountability requires the involvement not just of student athletes, parents and coaches, but also of administrators, funders, policy makers and citizens.

“There is a role for everyone to play,” said Armstrong, also Director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, and Director of the Center for Race & Ethnicity in Sport in the School of Kinesiology at University of Michigan. The good news, she said, is, “We’re saying things out loud that we used to whisper.”  

To address the issues of gender and racial inequities in sports and beyond, Armstrong said, “No matter what domain you are in, (Title IX) is creating an environment where they can thrive.” She added that the question needs to be, “How do you create a culture where everyone can rise together?” 

‘Lift as you rise’

Brennan moderated a second panel discussion, “Lift as You Rise: The Future for Women in Coaching and Athletic Administration,” featuring Kelly Amonte Hiller, NU Lacrosse Head Coach; Janna Blais, NU Deputy Director of Athletics; Kate Drohan, NU Softball Head Coach; and Kristina Minor, NU Senior Associate Athletics Director for Compliance.

From left: Christine Brennan, Kristina Minor, Kate Drohan, Janna Blais and Amonte Hiller. Credit: Michele Weldon

“It’s not just the law, it’s the right thing to do,” Minor said. 

Blais told the audience, which included the girls’ flag football team from Lane Tech High School, that access to sports for everyone can influence who they are, and help form who they become. 

“I had a softball coach who held up a ball and said, ‘This little ball can change your life.’ With it, I found resilience and perseverance. All the things that I need in my job today are because of that softball.”

Drohan, who has gained national recognition for the winning record of NU’s women’s softball teams, said, “When we talk about women, we do not want to teach them to be afraid, we want to teach them to be brave.” 

Later a panel of five former NU student athletes described their experiences and the impact sports has had on their lives in a panel moderated by Meghan McKeown, a former NU women’s basketball player who graduated in 2014.  

“Being given a platform now and being involved in this is completely different than what happened in 1995 when I arrived here,” said Dionna Latimer-Hearn, who played soccer at NU until graduating in 1999. “In 2022, I can see progress. I am not the afterthought I was.”

From left: Christine Brennan, Kristina Minor and Kate Drohan Credit: Michele Weldon

Chinazo Opia Cunningham, who graduated from NU in 1990 after playing softball there since 1986, said compliance to Title IX must move beyond checking the box.

Opia Cunningham added, “It is not enough to take pictures and have mission statements. It’s who is at the table, who’s in leadership. You have to show the changes structurally across the organization.”  

McKeown, a broadcast analyst for Big Ten Network and contributing broadcast analyst at ESPN, agreed that much progress has been made in the five decades of Title IX. Moving ahead, she said, “It is so important to have mentors.”

“Title IX broke the mold,” said Latimer-Heard.  

At the close of the conference Saturday, Isaacson said, “I had high expectations, and this has touched such a nerve, not just with women, but with all students, faculty, community and high school students.”

Caryn Ward, associate professor at Medill, who served on the event’s committee, said, “We absolutely accomplished our mission to look at the past, where we’ve been, where it stands now and what work still needs to be done.” 

Michele Weldon

Author, journalist, storyteller and editor. Discover her latest book, Act Like You're Having A Good Time: Essays

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