A Letter to a Future WNBA Player on the Anniversary of Title IX

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This week, Sportico is commemorating the 50th anniversary of Title IX with columns from top women’s sports leaders. Today’s guest columnist is Cathy Engelbert, commissioner of the WNBA. JohnWallStreet will return June 27.

Dear Future WNBA Player,

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I’m writing to you in 2022, when you’re young, just a 12-year-old athlete, 10 years away from a dream of being drafted into the WNBA. At this moment when you’re reading this letter, you may not realize what your future holds. I can tell you it’s going to be exciting, challenging, interesting and bright.

But that future wouldn’t be there for you without the efforts of a lot of great people in the past. Know that 50 years ago, there wasn’t much in the way of sports for girls. Girls basketball was around, but the funding at the higher levels was almost nonexistent, and the WNBA would not be born until 25 years later. But here’s where it gets interesting: 50 years ago, on June 23, 1972, a significant piece of civil rights legislation called Title IX was passed into law.

The magnitude of this legislation is something you may not fully understand, but it’s had a profound impact on the lives of millions of women, and on my life and career at many stages. Before Title IX, 1 in 27 girls played organized youth sports; now it is 1 in 5. It’s interesting that the impact of Title IX on women’s sports was quite accidental, as it was intended to address gender equality in education, and nowhere in the law did the words “sport” or “athletics” or even “physical education” appear.

Before Title IX, my basketball career wouldn’t have made it past the backyard, where in the 1970s, I eventually honed my jump shot playing alongside my five brothers on a rickety basket with a spray-painted foul line. Title IX enabled me to play three sports in high school and then go on to play two in college—basketball and lacrosse at Lehigh University. I am also pretty sure if it weren’t for Title IX, I would not have risen in the corporate ranks after college, to become the first female CEO of a U.S. Big Four professional services firm. That’s because sports builds leadership skills like resilience, agility and confidence, and helped me, a shy 8-year-old when Title IX was passed, to become the first commissioner of the WNBA.

So back to you, and why Title IX was important to lay the groundwork for your future journey. The WNBA just celebrated its 25th season in 2021, the longest tenured professional women’s sports league in the U.S. In 10 years, my hope is that you are our league’s No. 1 draft pick, and that you join an organization that continues to build the momentum around women’s sports—one that, by the time you take the court, will have helped drive the percentage of total corporate sponsorship dollars devoted to women’s sports from 1% to 20%; will have led the increase of women’s sports coverage from 5% to 20% of total sports coverage; will have enticed hundreds of millions of fans to watch and attend WNBA games; and will have negotiated media deals equaling those of men’s professional sports leagues, driving significantly higher player pay and benefits.    

It won’t be an easy road for you. You will need to work hard on and off the court, but I have seen firsthand the tremendous role sports can play in the development of young girls and the advancement of women as leaders in society. I have no doubt, if you stay in sports, you will become a direct example of exactly that.

My hope is that through your journey toward and your time in the WNBA, you will earn a college degree, you will become a household name, you will have your own shoe brand, you will go to lands far from America where they will know your name, and young girls everywhere will want to emulate your game. I hope that you, too, will become a CEO someday, and that you will know this vision was possible because of a piece of legislation 50 years ago called Title IX.

As I reflect on the things I’ve told you, my mind drifts back to a valuable piece of advice that my mom said to me many times: “Women can do anything men can do.”

And 50 years after the passing of Title IX, women and girls are showing that more and more every single day.

Engelbert was named the first-ever Commissioner of the WNBA in 2019, after retiring as CEO of Deloitte, where she led one of the largest accounting and consulting organizations in the U.S. She sits on the McDonald’s Corporation and Royalty Pharma Board of Directors, the USGA Executive Committee and the Catalyst Board.

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