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Kennedy’s legacy lives on in Title IX
Published September 7, 2009
All manner of tributes to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy hail him as a vital part of some of the biggest legislation and most important social changes in U.S. history. Indeed, from his seat in the highest lawmaking body in the country, which he held for 47 years, Kennedy has been remembered for playing a prominent role in issues and efforts oriented toward improving life for all Americans. But lost among the reviews of his vast record is the prominence of sports.
In the American experiment, Kennedy saw the sum of disparate parts working together toward common objectives. This is something he learned a great deal of through experience as part of a politically charged family. But when they weren’t participating in politics, the members of the Kennedy family were playing sports.
Despite the presence of sports in his youth, few remembrances recalled that Kennedy played three seasons of football at Harvard. He worked his way into the starting lineup as a senior and even caught a pass for the Crimson’s only score in a 21-7 loss to Yale. Even fewer have recalled that Kennedy became an accomplished enough football player to have drawn a letter of interest from the Green Bay Packers, an opportunity he turned down by famously saying he was headed toward a career in “another contact sport, politics.”
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of sports — and football, in particular — as the proving ground for leaders in 20th century America. Just as the will of Cecil Rhodes ordered that recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship shall be chosen for their scholastic achievement, character and “fondness of and success” in sports, so too did significant educational legislation championed by Kennedy include a focus on athletic participation. This is especially true of Title IX, legislation that is perhaps as controversial as Kennedy himself.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal statute that was signed into law in order to prohibit sex discrimination in education programs that receive financial assistance from the federal government. Despite the popular link between Title IX and athletics programs, the statute did not originally address or otherwise reference athletics. But following a two-year comment period on Title IX during which a majority of the nearly 10,000 comments received referred to athletics, Congress passed an amendment that included intercollegiate athletics as part of Title IX.
By the 1980s, issues surrounding opportunities and equity in expenditures across women’s sports began to heat up, and Kennedy fought to pass the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, which gave Title IX back much of its legislative teeth with regard to sports. In so doing, he helped open the door for generations of women to demonstrate their enthusiasm for and success in sports. He also did the same for people with disabilities, in tribute to one sister who suffered from mental illness and alongside another who created the Special Olympics, by championing the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, another famous Irish-American, once wrote of his twin regrets of having never starred in football at Princeton or having been a hero in World War I. It turned out that Fitzgerald would find immortality as an author. Kennedy experienced success on the gridiron but never achieved the presidency, an expectation that fell upon him by weight of heredity and tragedy.
But in the final analysis, Kennedy counted among his friends those who sat across the aisle and were of differing opinions. This, along with the spirit and resilience to get up, time and again, after so many public tragedies and knockdowns may be the attributes for which he is best remembered.
Robert Boland (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Lee Igel (email@example.com) are professors of sports management and sports business at New York University’s Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management.