Danbury High School girls basketball coach Jackie DiNardo was just a few months away from starting her freshman year at Azle High School in the tiny town of Azle, Texas, when Title IX of the Education Amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965 — better known simply as Title IX — was enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Richard Nixon in June 1972.

In the 45 years that have passed, that single piece of legislation has been debated, challenged and tweaked countless times. However, the spirit that inspired it — the spirit of equality, of inclusion and of opportunity — is as relevant now as it was then.

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Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to the Higher Education Act of 1965:

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

It reads: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The original idea behind the legislation was to create equal opportunities in education. A by-product, perhaps an unforeseen one, has been its impact on athletics — which are, of course, part of the complete educational experience, an extension of the classroom, if you will.

According to a story posted on the website of the Women’s Sports Foundation (founded by tennis great Billie Jean King in 1974, the year after she defeated Bobby Riggs in the famous “Battle of the Sexes” match at the Astrodome): “In 1971, one year before the passage of Title IX, only 294,000 girls participated in high school sports, compared to 3,700,000 boys. Several decades later, Title IX brought about a 940 percent increase in female participation in high school sports and a 19 percent increase in male participation in high school sports.”

But DiNardo — known in those days as Jackie Swaim — wasn’t overly concerned with what was happening on Capitol Hill. She was just happy to be playing ball.

“As a student, I didn’t really think of equality as much as I do now as a coach,” she said in an email. “I do remember asking myself why the boys got sweats and were treated differently. My school in Texas paid for my sneakers and practice clothes, and washed our clothes and uniforms. Did the boys get more? Yes they did, but as a player I was just happy to be playing. I just know that I was able to play basketball, and I felt some unfair treatment, but my priority was to play sports and not get involved in the politics.”

DiNardo was a standout on the volleyball, basketball and track and field teams at Azle High. A 1976 graduate, she was a member of the Azle High School Athletic Hall of Fame’s inaugural induction class in 2015. After high school, DiNardo starred on the women’s basketball team at the University of Texas under the direction of coaching great Jody Conradt. At the end of both the 1978-79 and the 1980-81 seasons, the Longhorns finished third in the AIAW regional tournament, the predecessor of today’s NCAA national tournament. DiNardo also won a gold medal as a member of Team USA at the 1979 World Championships and a silver medal at the 1979 Pan American Games under the direction of another women’s coaching legend and pioneer, Pat Summitt.

Even on the bigger stages upon which DiNardo later shined, the differences between the men’s and women’s teams — some more subtle than others — still existed.

“I played basketball in the middle school and I remember again how the adults were always talking about why the boys had the gym and special treatment, and the girls played on outdoor courts and our coaches were our parents. If I remember correctly, the boys coaches were paid and the girls volunteered. Again, I didn’t feel the inequality, I just was happy to play with my friends. In elementary school we mostly all ran track and again I remember the coaches making a comment that I was ‘just a girl.’ Did I actually understand what that meant at the age? No! Even in the 1979 Pan Am Games, the boys team stayed in an air-conditioned hotel, while the girls team remained in the athletic village with no air-conditioning, room service, or full-size beds.”

A member of the Connecticut Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, as well as the University of Texas Hall of Fame, DiNardo has guided the Hatters girls basketball team to more than 400 wins, and also served as the head volleyball coach.

“I can honestly say I was supported by men for my job at Danbury High School over 30 years ago, and I appreciate the respect and fair treatment I’ve received,” she said.

However, DiNardo brought up an important question:

“Why should society need Title IX to have fair treatment in sports? Why couldn’t it just be the way it should be, respecting all woman and men who want to play sports? If we didn’t have Title IX, my girls would still be in a closet, not a locker room, and our games would be played at 3 o’clock and not in prime time.”

‘ZIP, ZERO, ZILCH’

Title IX was still on the fairly distant horizon when New Fairfield High School athletic director Mary Stolle — known then as Mary O’Came — was attending Patchogue-Medford High School on Long Island in the late 1960s. It was a time of great upheaval in our nation, with the Vietnam War raging on the other side of the world and battles for equality and coexistence between races, genders, classes and generations being fought here at home. Those battles were waged in an effort to make positive social changes. Sometimes, however, those changes were slow to gain momentum.

“We did not have any interscholastic sports for girls — zip, zero, zilch — and I have to tell you it really ticked me off!” said Stolle, who graduated from high school in 1968, in an email. “The only athletic opportunities I had were intramurals, so I played every single one I could: soccer, basketball, volleyball, badminton/ping pong, softball, gymnastics. I was banned from playing ping pong during the badminton intramurals because I was too strong of a player and beat everyone pretty badly. I questioned the equality of it then and didn’t think it fair that I could not play.”

Eventually, Stolle did get a chance to play, as a member of the volleyball and basketball teams at Yankton College in South Dakota — the same college as former NFL defensive end Lyle Alzado, and Danbury High School athletic director Chip Salvestrini, a 1975 draft choice of the San Diego Chargers — although she admitted that the level of play was nowhere near that of today’s female college athletes.

Once she entered the job market, however, Stolle encountered more double standards.

“I landed my first coaching job when I landed my first (job teaching physical education),” she said. “Because I was the female PE teacher, I was assigned to coach every girls sport, whether I knew anything about it or not. The boys coaches were hired with their knowledge and expertise in mind. It was quite unfair to the girls. I wound up doing drill team, cheerleading, volleyball, basketball and track my first year. Over the course of my career I also coached gymnastics, field hockey and golf.”

While much has changed in recent years, some things have not.

“What hasn’t changed is that people still believe that boys are better athletes than girls,” Stolle said. “There is still a perception that girls and women’s sports are boring to watch.

“What is irritating to those of us who fought the battle for equality is girls who have some athleticism that do not want to play,” added Stolle, whose four daughters all played sports in high school and college. “I would have loved to have the opportunities girls have now.”

‘DIRT PAY’

Title IX was celebrating its 10th birthday right about the time Darien High School girls lacrosse coach Lisa Lindley was graduating from Simsbury High School in 1982. Lindley — known then as Lisa Griswold — played field hockey and basketball, and she was recruited by colleges for both sports. She went to Northwestern on a field hockey scholarship and picked up lacrosse while she was there, then transferred to UMass. She earned all-America honors in field hockey in 1983, 1985 and 1986, and in lacrosse in 1984, 1986 and 1987. She was a member of the U.S. national women’s lacrosse team from 1987 to 1992.

And her résumé as a coach is just as impressive. After assistant coaching jobs with the women’s lacrosse teams at UMass and Yale, Lindley took the reins of the up-and-coming girls lacrosse program at Darien High in 1994. Darien was one of the first high schools in Connecticut to offer girls lacrosse; girls lacrosse wasn’t even a CIAC-sanctioned sport until 2004.

Lindley’s efforts have certainly yielded a bountiful harvest, as her Blue Wave teams have won nine state titles in the last 11 years, but she paid her share of dues along the way, too.

“When I got into coaching after college, it was understood you would be an assistant for 10 to 15 years at dirt pay and hope someone retired so you would be given an opportunity,” she said in an email. “My first coaching job, I made $1,000 for the year. In the last 15 years, with the growth of lacrosse, young women have been hired into head coaching jobs without any experience. They definitely have more opportunities than I ever did.”

‘ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE’

Western Connecticut State University athletic director Lori Mazza played volleyball, basketball and softball at Bishop Shanahan High School in Downingtown, Pa. — about 33 miles west of Philadelphia — and graduated in 1987.

“My parents were very supportive of me playing athletics,” Mazza said in an email. “From my parents, I have learned to pursue life with the attitude that anything is possible.”

Mazza was hired at Western in 2016 after working at the ECAC corporate office in Danbury as the associate vice president of championships, leagues and affiliates and senior woman administrator since 2015. Before that, she had served as the director of athletics and recreation at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford since 1998.

Athletics, thanks in part to the opportunities fostered therein by Title IX, have helped develop strong, confident girls. The ripple effects of Title IX can be seen in all facets of life.

“Many girls have a better quality of life and are empowered to make a positive difference in the world due to access and opportunities in athletics participation,” Mazza said. “Because of Title IX, my 16-year old twin nieces, Karly and Bri, only know a reality in which they have access to pursue their interests and goals in academics and athletics. What is wonderful is that they don’t have to fight for the right to play. If they are interested in a sport, they sign up and gain the skills needed to be a better athlete. They feel empowered, gain confidence, develop the work ethic they will need to succeed in life, and the perseverance to achieve it.

“Title IX has opened the doors for women like me,” Mazza added. “I wouldn’t be where I am today, as a Division III athletic director, if not for Title IX.”

rgregory@newstimes.com