Mississippi State guard Morgan William (2) celebrates with teammates after hitting a buzzer basket to defeat Connecticut in an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the women's Final Four, Friday, March 31, 2017. Mississippi State won 66-64. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Let’s go back 50 years to 1972. Title IX has just weeks earlier become the law of the land. To paraphrase Bob Dylan: The times, they were a-changin’.

I was a young sports writer at the Hattiesburg American, working my way through college. My editor told me to go report on a seminar at the university. The federal government – the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), specifically – was sending a representative to explain the ramifications of Title IX. I went.

Rick Cleveland

But first I had to look up the Title IX legislation. It was all of 37 words: “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 educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

I didn’t see the words “sports” or “athletics” in the wording anywhere. I wasn’t sure why I was being sent to cover it. The answer came quickly.

The woman from HEW didn’t mince words. She said all public schools – elementary schools through universities that received federal funding – would have to spend money equally on boys and girls and men and women – in athletics, as in every other aspect of education. And, if they didn’t, they would lose all federal monies.

Hands shot up. People had questions. One of the first: How are universities such as USM, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, already struggling to make ends meet, supposed to double their spending on scholarships, salaries, expenses, etc. within their athletic programs?

Her answer: That wasn’t the government’s concern. They’d do it or else.

At that point, I muttered something to the effect: “That’s insane. It’ll never fly. It’s not fair.”

The man next to me, a professor in the health and physical education department, looked at me and replied, “Obviously, you’ve never had a daughter.” He had three. One became the point guard on the first Hattiesburg High basketball team.

Fifty years, a son and a daughter later, I get it.

Last week, the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at Ole Miss celebrated 50 years of Title IX with a panel discussion that featured Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter, women’s basketball coach Yolette McPhee-McCuinn (better known as Coach Yo) and Rita Igbokwe, a senior player on the Ole Miss women’s basketball team. I moderated. You can find it here.

If the discussion did nothing else, it surely highlighted the remarkable change in the American sports scene those 37 words have spurred. I’ve lived it. I’ve covered it. 

In 1972, no co-ed Mississippi college or university had a single women’s athletic team. Since then, Delta State has won six national women’s basketball championships. Ole Miss has won a national championship in golf. Mississippi State has made it the NCAA women’s basketball championship twice. Southern Miss made the women’s College World Series in softball. In track and field, USM’s Tori Bowie of Pisgah won NCAA championships in track and field and later an Olympic gold medal and three world championships. Last season, Coach Yo’s Ole Miss team won 23 games and made the NCAA Tournament. 

More importantly, over the last 50 years, thousands upon thousands of young women have competed in multiple sports and had their educations financed as was never the case before.

In more than half a century of covering Mississippi sports, the two most meaningful transformations I have witnessed: One, the widespread racial integration of sports at all levels; two, the meteoric rise of women’s athletics.

Fifty years ago, I think I would have predicted what has happened as far as integration. As for what has happened with regard to women’s athletics, I had not a clue.

Thirty-seven words. Amazing.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.