A few weeks ago we celebrated a milestone moment in American sports history, the 50-year anniversary of the passage of Title IX. A federal civil rights law that has influenced so much around gender equality in education, arguably Title IX’s biggest impact was leveling the playing field for girls and women in sports.
The passage of the legislation had immediate impacts in Long Beach and across the country. The Moore League added girls’ sports for the first time shortly after it was passed in 1972, and girls’ teams were soon competing for CIF-SS championships and college scholarships.
The history of girls in sports extends far back beyond 1972 here, of course. Long Beach was settled in large part by Midwesterners in the late 19th century, many of whom left farms behind; farms where daughters were expected to do their share of chores, including physical labor.
So it’s no surprise that in the early 1900s, Long Beach Poly (then Long Beach High) had a thriving girls’ sports programs. The Long Beach High girls’ basketball team must have been a sight to behold, with a 6-foot-6 center and a rapid-fire passing style that led them to wins over the Long Beach High boys’ team and even collegiate teams like USC. The Jackrabbit girls actually went 2-1 against USC in the 1900s and 1910s.
The creation of the CIF in 1913 was the worst thing that could have happened for girls’ athletes at the time. The organization may have had some Long Beachers involved in its creation (including Harry J. Moore, for whom the Moore League is named) but the CIF was founded without Long Beach’s “progressive” view of girls playing sports. As prep sports became formalized under the CIF’s structure, girls were left behind, and for 60 years the only girls’ sports were offered as PE classes, intramurals, or in other amateur competitions.
Local Long Beach legends suffered under the idiocy of the pre-Title IX world. Long Beach Olympic swimmer Suzie Atwood was competing for Team USA in the Olympics while still a student at Millikan High, where she had to take general physical education because girls weren’t allowed on a swim team. Her teacher had the gall to mark her “unexcused absent” while she was training with the national team, an injustice shared by other pioneers like Wilson rower Joan Van Blom, and Poly’s Billie Jean King.
Billie Jean became the posterchild for allowing girls and women opportunities thanks to her win over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, and she went up and down the halls of Congress knocking on doors to make sure Title IX was passed 50 years ago. It was a personal fight for Billie Jean, as it was for so many other women involved in the movement. A few years ago in an interview, she told me she still regrets not being able to win a Moore League championship in high school.
“All I wanted was to beat Wilson,” she said.
Fifty years later, the seeds planted by Billie Jean, Suzie, and Joan have born incredible harvests of athletic opportunity. Long Beach State and LBCC’s women’s programs flourished, with the LBSU women’s volleyball team bringing home national championships, and its women’s basketball team standing as one of the best in the nation in the 1970s.
Millions of dollars in college scholarships are earned every year by Long Beach high school girls, and the girls win more championships at the CIF Southern Section and CIF State level than the boys do.
The fight isn’t over, of course. Long Beach is lucky to still be filled with trailblazers, not just in the ranks of athletes, but more recently in the ranks of coaches as well. Longtime Millikan girls’ basketball coach Lorene Morgan has won 604 games with the Rams and coached a WNBA champion in Courtney Clements; only five women in California history have coached more girls’ basketball wins than Morgan.
Poly athletic director and track and field coach Crystal Irving has been a statewide trailblazer as one of California’s first-ever Black women to win a state title. Irving comes from a historic Long Beach family that was among the city’s first Black business owners, and befitting her inspirational athletic and coaching career, she was recently named the CIF State Coach of the Year for her service. It was a fitting full-circle moment seeing a Long Beach figure honored by the CIF a century after it served to stamp down girls’ sports in the city, and a half-century after Title IX’s passage began to undo that damage.
Irving is a Poly institution, but she said that she was inspired by those who came before her, like Billie Jean.
“I remember looking at that ‘Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve’ sign and thinking about her, wanting to be like her and to make an impact like her,” she said.
As long as girls and women are given an opportunity to compete, their impact will always be felt—in Long Beach, across the country, and around the world.