It’s about the next generation for A’ja Wilson.
The Las Vegas Aces superstar has accomplished plenty at 25 years old, from winning WNBA MVP to having a statue of herself at the University of South Carolina. Now, with Title IX hitting its 50th anniversary, she wants to be that next face that young women and girls can look up to.
“Obviously it’s come a long way because we wouldn’t be standing here playing the game that we love if it didn’t happen,” Wilson said.
Today marks the golden anniversary of the landmark legislation that was passed during the Nixon administration, ensuring gender equality in all forms of federally educated programs. Women’s sports, however, is the benchmark when thinking about Title IX.
According to the Women’s Equity Resource Center, less than 300,000 girls were in high school varsity sports across the United States in 1971, before Congress approved the Education Amendments Act, which included Title IX. By 1996, that number had grown to 2.4 million. Donna DeVarona, the former Olympic swimmer and president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, in 2016 credited Title IX for a 990% increase in girls playing high school sports in the United States since the law’s 1972 passage.
Wilson recalled something Pat Summitt, the legendary Tennessee Volunteers women’s basketball coach, said that fit the meaning behind Title IX: “It gives us an opportunity to be at the playground.”
“At the same time, we are grateful for where we are, but we still have a long way to go,” Wilson said. “Just the respect level and understanding that this isn’t just it for women in sports. We have to continue to grow and plant seeds for the next generation.”
Wilson played at South Carolina under Dawn Staley, a Hall of Fame player and already recognized as one of the best coaches in college basketball. Staley was one of those from the beginning that ushered in the era of women’s basketball having a professional platform.
Not only was Staley among the early pioneers in women’s professional basketball as a player in the new American Basketball League in 1996 then moving to the budding WNBA in 1999, she was a member of the 1996 U.S. women’s Olympic team that went 52-0 from Oct. 31, 1995, culminating in the gold medal game against Italy in July 1996.
Aces coach Becky Hammon turned pro in 1999, and the six-time WNBA All-Star has also created her own trail in paving the way for young women.
Hammon, in her first year with the Aces, spent the past eight years learning under Gregg Popovich — the winningest coach in NBA history — as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs. Highly touted for years and expected to be the first female head coach in the NBA, Hammon’s head coaching career starts in Las Vegas where the Aces have the league’s best record at 15-3.
She’s believed to be the first WNBA coach to make $1 million annually, a milestone that reaffirms owner Mark Davis’ dedication to equality. Davis, who owns both the Aces and the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, is also providing an ultramodern training facility and team headquarters for the Aces, a multimillion dollar project in Henderson that will rival team facilities in the NBA. The 50,000-square-foot complex will include practice courts, training rooms, offices, locker rooms and more.
“My whole livelihood was because Title IX was in place,” Hammon said. “I was given an opportunity to compete at the highest level, not only from grade school but all the way through high school, college.
“I don’t think there’s any way we can quantify the effects Title IX has had, not only on myself, but millions and millions of girls and families across the United States.”
Hammon, much like Wilson, understands that there is still much to be done, but it goes beyond what happens in women’s athletics. She said the next step wass equality, leaving out the comparisons and acknowledging that young women are great athletes.
“No comparison. Great athletes, period. And you leave it there,” Hammon said. “It’s not about comparing this and that. Let these girls — let these women — be great in their own right and that’s where you leave it.”
The Aces played the defending WNBA champion Chicago Sky at Michelob Ultra Arena on Tuesday, with both teams wearing shirts during warmups that read “Impact, Culture, Change” on the back.
Those three principles, Hammon believes, are the building blocks for what can be done to ensure growth for the next 50 years.
“The science is very clear with kids and especially girls who are involved with sports. They have better self-esteem, they make better decisions, they stay in school longer, they’re less likely to get pregnant,” Hammon said. “All these good things happened when we get involved. So we’ve got to continue to push that line, and as a latter stage of opportunity, equality has to come down the line.”