The sports media voices of Title IX: Donna de Varona

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Donna de Varona, right, with Billie Jean King at a Women’s Sports Foundation event.

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 receiving federal financial assistance.

– Part of the wording of the Title IX legislation that President Nixon signed into law on June 23, 1972.

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Since the end of April, ESPN has been counting down the top 40 female athletes of the past 40 years, part of a initiative called “The Power of IX – recognizing the 40th anniversary of Title IX,” which celebrates its 40th anniversary of being approved on Saturday.

Friday, the top 10 athletes on this list will be revealed on the 8 p.m. “SportsCenter,” including the naming of the No. 1 person.

Because the Equal Education Amendment Act of 1972 was all about creating a level playing field across the board — not just in athletics — the ESPN list inspired us to create out own Top 40.

We choose to honor the 40 sports media females who raised the bar in the sports media over the last 40 years. Friday, we’ll unveil our list.

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And in giving first-person voices to this project, it’s appropriate to start with Donna de Varona.

The San Diego native became a member of the U.S. Olympic swim team at age 13 in 1960. She retired from swimming in 1965, after winning two golds at the ’64 Tokyo Games, and while attending UCLA, at age 17, she was hired as one of the first female sports broadcasters at a major network by ABC on “Wide World of Sports” as a way to pay her college bills. UCLA, like most schools at the time, didn’t have women’s sports programs.

This was seven years before Title IX.

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She got out of broadcasting for a time to focus on the passage of Title IX, and from 1976 to ’78 she was a consultant to the U.S. Senate during the preparation of the Amateur Sports Act, which gave women and and minorities greater and better access to training facilities and money. At that point, she co-founded the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974, and served as the organization’s first president from 1979 to ’84, while she worked for NBC doing “Sports World” series reporting.

That’s when she returned to broadcasting to cover the 1984 Winter and Summer Games for ABC — giving even more exposure to a cause she felt most passionate about, She was a late-night host for both the broadcasts and teammed with Jim Lampley as a swimming analyst in L.A.

She ended up covering 17 Olympics, but often felt it didn’t get her the credibility in the media world.

“I don’t feel the rewards came after that,” she told Sally Jenkins at Sports Illustrated at the time. “You do good work, and then wait and wait for another good assignment.”

She won an Emmy Award in 1991 for a story about a Special Olympics athlete, but in 1998, ABC decided not to rehire her. She filed an age-discrimination suit, but the case was settled out of court and she returned to work at ABC.

Once a candidate for the USOC presidency, she remains in broadcasting with radio commentaries while she continues to fight for equal rights in athletics to this day.

The 65-year-old de Varona reflects here about how her sports media career was shaped by Title IX:

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Donna de Varona, left, with Dustin Plunkett during the announcement last September of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games coming to Los Angeles. De Varona serves on the board of directors for Special Olympics International as well as the 2015 Special Olympics World Games.

My work in Title IX gave me a voice I wanted to have as a broadcaster. But there was a lot of pushback. My visibility was often threatened. I often got comments about my activism being an issue, forcing me to make choices. That did two things for me: It made me fight harder and stay at ABC, and also to work on Capitol Hill.

Conversely, my visibility gave me credibility as one of the first, and youngest women to cover the Olympics as well as working at one of the top network affiliates. I had two arenas to highlight women’s sports, to pursue women’s stories. And when I was back at ABC in 1983 as Roone Arledge’s liaison to the international sports community, I could articulate that much better.

The marriage of both was important with Title IX and the issues I embraced. Fortunately, Roone understood that activism was as important as articulating and being passionate was important. Howard Cosell did it all the time, and I used him as example when I was testifying for Title IX.

I left ABC in 1976 after the Montreal Olympics and worked in the Senate, but when NBC started ‘Sports World,’ one of the first stories I did was on the AIAW (the women’s governing body for college athletics, which eventually folded into the NCAA, which would oversee both men’s and women’s athletics) and that was a real training ground for me getting back to ABC in 1983 as one of the first female co-anchors for the Summer Games (in ’84).

There was a liability and pressure, but it was a great opportunity to have that platform. Women’s sports had Billie Jean King also working to create a strong foundation to lobby for the rights of women athletes. There are issues today with the Title IX structure. I wish the Bush administration had paid more attention to the mandate instead having to cut sports now because of big TV contracts, which make all sports vulnerable except football and basketball.

Developing my skills as a communicator came from sitting next to Jim McKay as a 17-year-old. What an extraordinary experience to be in a sporting event outside the competitive arena. Every time I sat with him, it was like a history lesson, and he was the ultimate story teller. I grew up with him, and Cosell, Chris Schenkel. They lifted the visibility of an issue. I was so fortunate to be in their company. There was also the outgrowth of the ‘Passion to Play’ series with Dennis Swanson as the ABC president. I now see how ESPNW has taken off.

I do see how some sports writers talk today about the women pioneers in sports, but to some of them, maybe I don’t exist. Seventeen Olympics? I think that’s pretty heady stuff.

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