Meet Kari. Now meet the other Kari. One played college lacrosse in the 1980s; the other currently plays at the same school for the same coach. College sports have radically evolved during that time—take the high-tech clothes that emit infrared radiation to maximize performance—but there’s one constant: Title IX of the Higher Education Act ensures that no person is excluded from university programs “on the basis of sex.” In collaboration with ESPN and The Walt Disney Company, we examine how Title IX continues to ripple across American society.
AMY BRIGGS (HOST): I’m Amy Briggs. It is Wednesday, April 13th, I think, and I am in Princeton, New Jersey, and I am walking down Prospect Avenue, which is the street where all the eating clubs are. So eating clubs … (fades out)
(Narration) On a sunny spring day, I took a walk down memory lane. I’m a proud alum of Princeton University. Go Tigers. When I was a kid, my big sister played lacrosse here. And now my niece Kari is on the team. So I came back to see one of her games.
(On Princeton campus) So on my left is the Dial Lodge, which was an eating club that closed down.
(Narration) I walked down the main drag of eating clubs, which are basically the Princeton version of fraternities and sororities. There are these mansions with big front lawns lining the street. Kids are blasting music and hanging out on the front lawn. And to prove that spring was really here, dogwoods and cherry blossoms were just starting to bloom.
(On Princeton campus) So, yeah, I am on my way to Hoagie Haven, which is the place in town to get cheesesteaks. I'm going to go get a cheesesteak with bacon, and I'm going to eat the whole thing. It's gonna be awesome.
(Narration) With cheesesteak in hand, I made my way to the lacrosse field. It was a big game for Princeton. They were ranked twelfth in the country, and they faced number-eight Maryland. Kari was actually hurt and couldn’t play, but I wanted to cheer anyway. I settled into the bleachers with my parents, who live nearby.
PUBLIC ADDRESS ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Sherrerd Field at the Class of 1952 Stadium here on the campus of Princeton University for an evening of Princeton Tiger lacrosse.
(In narration) Not to be all get off my lawn, but kids these days have it pretty good. At my sister’s games, I remember sitting in small rows of bleachers, watching the players run around with wooden sticks on a grass field. But Kari plays on an immaculate turf field. There’s a jumbotron that shows slick highlight videos. Instead of paper game programs, we could download them to our phone with a QR code. It all felt really professional. Once the game started, it was clear that some things never change.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, don’t grab your head!
BRIGGS: And the lacrosse dads are very intense.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, Mary!
(In narration) At first, there was a lot to cheer about.
(At lacrosse game) Good job, Tigers!
FEMALE VOICE: Go go go!
BRIGGS: (At lacrosse game) That “Go go go” is my mom.
(Narration) Princeton scored first. And then they scored again and again.
(Sound of crowd cheering)
(Narration) But in the end, Maryland proved why they’re a top-ten team. They found their groove and won the game 19-9. Ouch.
(At lacrosse game) Good job, Tigers.
(Narration) Even for an outsider like me, it was easy to see how lacrosse has changed since my sister played in the eighties. But it turns out there are even bigger changes happening, and Princeton’s coach has had a front row seat.
CHRIS SAILER: Hi, I'm Chris Sailer. I have been the varsity lacrosse coach at Princeton for the last 36 years.
BRIGGS: In Chris’s very first season, she actually coached my older sister. Now she’s coaching my niece too, which makes us all pretty proud. Chris is a low-key person, but she’s a huge deal in the lacrosse world. She’s in the lacrosse hall of fame, and she’s won more games at the same school than any other Division I coach—women’s or men’s.
Chris’s program used to be a lot more spartan. She remembers when the head coach had to do a lot more admin work, plus help coach a second sport and even drive the team van to games.
SAILER: We fought—you know, and I don't know if I want to say “fight” with everything, because sometimes it's just a matter of bringing it to the attention. You know, I mean, for years, kids didn't get sports bras, right? And now they get sports bras as part of what they need to play. Little things like that happen over time that players don't even know about.
BRIGGS: These days, it’s not just Princeton seeing more investment in women’s lacrosse. It’s happening all over. When Chris started, there were about 30 D-I women’s lacrosse programs. Now there are almost 120.
SAILER: You've seen the sport grow throughout the country at the college level. You've seen it grow throughout the country at the high school level. And I don't think that happens out of the goodness of any university president’s or athletic director’s heart, right? I mean, it costs a lot of money to have a program.
BRIGGS: In the past 50 years, the number of girls playing sports has exploded. In 1972, fewer than 300,000 girls played high school sports in the U.S. Today there are more than 10 times as many. And that didn’t happen out of the goodness of anybody’s heart either, because 50 years ago a federal law changed everything.
I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History, and this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
This week: Title IX turns 50. In collaboration with ESPN and Disney, we’ll explore how it continues to ripple across American society. We’ll look back on this law that guarantees an equal playing field for everyone, no matter their sex. We’ll meet a group of women connected by one sport—lacrosse—and hear why it’s essential for women to have opportunities on the field.
We’ll have more after a short break. And if you like what you hear, please consider a Nat Geo subscription. Get exclusive access to stories published every single day, curated newsletters delivered straight to your inbox, and unlimited access to our archives, going back 130 years.
For more, go to natgeo.com/exploremore.
Fifty years ago this month, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972—that’s the full name—became the law of the land. It’s short: just 37 words, tucked into a much longer federal education bill.
It reads: “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.”
In other words, anything that a school gives to men and boys, it also has to give to women and girls.
LISA SALTERS (ESPN REPORTER): When you look back at it, you think, Well, why would you—that's like, “Duh!” as my nine year old would say. Duh, of course. Why wouldn't you give the same opportunities for the girls as you would for the boys?
This is Lisa Salters. She’s a longtime ESPN reporter. You might have seen her on Monday Night Football, or from the sidelines of NBA games. ESPN is releasing a series of documentaries called Fifty/50 that explore the battle for equal rights in education and athletics. So I asked Lisa how Title IX changed the game.
SALTERS: Back then, this was monumental. This was groundbreaking, and it really is something to celebrate.
BRIGGS: Can you explain more about why Title IX is such a big deal? I mean, how did it shape the sports world that we know today?
SALTERS: It just gave opportunities where none existed before. I was just at a celebration of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, where—you know, in Indiana, basketball isn't just a sport. It's kind of a way of life. And I was just listening to some of the older women talk about the opportunities that they did not have because they predated Title IX. Like, they had to go to a gym and play one day a week because the other six days were reserved for the boys. And now today, in 2022, if a township or a school tried to offer a sports program or any kind of program just for boys and not offer the same thing for girls, well, they would get sued because it's against the law. But even more than that, today they would be laughed at.
BRIGGS: That’s not to say that Title IX was a magic bullet that fixed inequity in sports. That’s an ongoing battle, and we’ll have more on that later. But it’s easy to take for granted just how seismic Title IX really was. In 1972, 93 percent of high school athletes were boys. Just six years later, girls made up more than 30 percent of high school athletes. Today their share is over 40 percent.
And women aren’t just playing more. They’re finding careers in sports. In the past few years, we’ve seen women shatter the glass ceilings of NFL officials and coaches, NBA coaches, and Major League Baseball front offices.
SALTERS: Once people started seeing girls participating in all of these sports, once they started seeing how good women can be—how good we can be at everything, if given the opportunity—then it's like a light bulb goes off. “Oh, OK. This is what it looks like? Oh, that's not so bad. It's actually pretty cool.” I think people have seen in the 50 years that if you give women opportunity—if you give anybody opportunities—they're going to make the most of them.
BRIGGS: To see what women do with those opportunities, I didn’t have to look very far. I’ve played field hockey my entire life. I mean, I still play in a rec league. I’ve seen the doors that sports open. And I can’t imagine what my life would look like without that. Plus, I have these lacrosse players in my own family. Even though it’s been more than 30 years since my sister played college sports, I wanted to know how it made her the person she is today. And I was curious what it’s like to be an athlete now, 50 years after Title IX. So I brought together my sister, my niece, and the hall of famer who coached them both.
(To interview guests) So good morning.
KARI NOVAK, KARI BUONANNO, AND CHRIS SAILER: Good morning.
BRIGGS: (To interview guests) Thanks for all showing up before 9 a.m. on a Thursday. Appreciate that.
First up …
NOVAK: You want full and last name?
NOVAK: So, Kari Novak.
BRIGGS: This is my oldest sister, Kari. I’m the youngest in the family. And we have another sister named Heidi in the middle. Next up is Heidi’s daughter, our niece.
BUONANNO: My name's Kari Buonanno. I'm a sophomore here at Princeton. I'm on the women's lacrosse team.
BRIGGS: Yeah, they’re both named Kari, which can be confusing. In the interview, we called them Big Kari and Little Kari to tell them apart. And also in the room: Chris Sailer, who’s retiring after her 36 years as the Tigers’ head coach.
SAILER: And I just think it's so incredibly cool that I have two Karis from the same family really in my first and last year at Princeton. It's kind of coming full circle.
BRIGGS: It wasn’t a given that Little Kari would follow in my sister’s footsteps. In high school, she was a standout who was named Rhode Island Female Athlete of the Year. Other coaches tried to recruit her, but Chris made her feel at home.
(Sound of lacrosse game)
BUONANNO: At one of my first Princeton lacrosse camps I ever did, Chris must've had a sheet, you know, with all the names of the kids at camp. And she recognized “Kari” on the list, and I feel like that was kind of the first, like, Oh, there's this connection here. It was really cool for me. I felt kind of famous at the camp after that, like, Oh, she kinda knows my family at least.
BRIGGS: So Big Kari, what's it like to watch your niece play for the same school and the same coach?
NOVAK: It's just been great, and I feel like it's kind of, you know, reliving this whole thing again. And so there's a part of me that I feel like Kari—except this body is a little older—that I would like to be—keep playing because I feel like I never finished, is kind of where I was.
SAILER: Kari, you're so fit right now. You could probably slide right in there with no trouble.
BRIGGS: So Little Kari ended up at Princeton after an intense recruiting process, which is pretty typical. Kari says that she was already talking to college coaches before she even started high school. But back in the day, things were very different for Big Kari. She’s not the kind of person who brags, so I’m gonna do it for her. She racked up some big lacrosse honors in college. She was a regional All-American, and she also made the All-Ivy team.
But when Kari first got to campus, she had never touched a lacrosse stick. She was a field hockey player, like me. Back then, field hockey and women’s lacrosse shared pretty much everything: the same coaches, the same field, even the same jerseys.
NOVAK: At that time, a lot of the girls played two sports, or sometimes three, and they encouraged me to come out for lacrosse. And so one of the juniors at the time taught me how to throw and catch in a squash court. And at that time they had a JV [junior varsity]. So I was playing on JV and I remember my first game extremely well—that I pushed the ball down the whole entire field because I couldn't pick it up. And the coach is just crying, “Please, pick the ball up!” But yeah, so that's how it all started.
BRIGGS: So Big Kari, do you remember your first impression of Coach Sailer?
NOVAK: When Chris came in, you could just feel that there was a mission happening, that she was set to create something.
Kari got a taste of Chris’s intensity when lacrosse collided with “bicker.” At Princeton, bicker is the time when people pick their eating clubs—remember those big houses I was walking past earlier? They’re sort of coed fraternities or sororities, and bicker is kind of like rush. For a lot of students, it’s a big part of their social calendar. And if it is, you do not want to miss it.
It’s changed a lot over the years, but after you pick the one you want to join, you bicker it, which often involved some parties and late nights. It’s not exactly conducive to getting up early for practice. But Chris isn’t the kind of coach who takes excuses.
NOVAK: There are a lot of late nights and things like that. But then practice was starting kind of right at that time. And, you know, we were expected to run, you know, X amount of time in two miles or something like this. And you know, it was like, Well, this is what's happening. We were like, Well, we have bicker. I mean, how can we fit that in? And so it was just all of this kind of—just a new mindset to how we had approached things, so.
BRIGGS: I mean, Coach Sailer, do you remember this too?
SAILER: Uh, I think that's pretty fair.
BRIGGS: I mean, because it was your first season, like, were you more determined to be a hard-ass or … ?
SAILER: Well, I think I was probably more of a hard-ass by nature than maybe what they were used to, so. (laughter)
NOVAK: Well, I particularly remember there was always that star drill and—right? (Laughter.) And you couldn't drop the ball. But for whatever reason, you'd be like, Oh boy, here we go again. But I mean, afterwards you really built the program incredibly strong. And I remember that—just watching it going, Gosh, I wish I could have stayed and, you know, been a part of that.
BRIGGS: Coming up: Princeton lacrosse takes off. Even at the top of her game, Chris has to fight a possible Title IX violation. Plus, why the COVID pandemic is putting Title IX in the spotlight again.
After Big Kari graduated, Chris Sailer started to build up her trophy case. She’s won three national championships, 16 Ivy League titles, and more than 400 games. And she’s seen lacrosse take off, especially in the past 20 years.
In the 2018-2019 school year, there were almost 100,000 girls playing high school lacrosse. Those are the most recent figures from the National Federation of High School Sports. Twenty years ago, the number was less than half that. To be fair, it’s not just women. Men’s lacrosse is growing too. But Chris says having the force of a federal law makes it possible for all those women and girls to play.
SAILER: And I think that's something that lacrosse, our sport, has really benefited from because you've just seen the proliferation of programs over the last 10 years. And so, you know, that—having Title IX in place really has provided more opportunity for women to compete at a sport like ours at the college level.
BRIGGS: So Coach Sailer, have you personally had to fight for lacrosse or women's sports as a whole?
SAILER: Um, yes. I mean, yes, absolutely. You know, I think we've been fortunate here at Princeton, but there are always things that you try and keep pushing for whenever you see that there are things that aren't equal—and certainly there are some—you try your best to keep fighting for it and bring to the forefront.
(Lacrosse game sounds)
BRIGGS: For most of its history, Princeton didn’t allow women to enroll as normal undergrads—not until 1969. The first year that women were on campus, the university set aside a women’s locker room, complete with hair dryers.
Chris talks highly of the Princeton administration. During her tenure, she’s seen them make real commitments to her program, like the fact that they merged the men’s and women’s lacrosse alumni groups, so women can reap the benefits of donations made by male alums. But there was one time when Chris spotted a possible Title IX violation and decided to stand up to her boss.
SAILER: Yeah, I think it was in the early nineties. There was some resentment brewing among the women's coaches. We felt that we were underpaid compared to the men, and we knew we were doing similar jobs. I think we had some hard data that we had come by to kind of back that up, and we jointly wrote a letter to the athletic director and basically laid out our case.
Eventually—I'd say within a year, three quarters of a year—virtually all of the coaches of women's sports got bump-ups in their salaries. And I think we felt, you know, good that that was the response, although I do remember at one point the sense that, “Oh, look what we've done for you. You should be so grateful.” And I remember feeling like, Well, maybe if you back pay me for five years, I’d feel a little more grateful, but I'm glad that at least there was a consideration for that.
BRIGGS: What was it like to take a stand like that? Like, were you scared?
SAILER: I think we were a little scared, but we felt that because we had all of us in it together, we felt that strength in numbers. I mean, we didn't put down the gauntlet—like, if we don't get raises, we're leaving. But I think we laid out a case, and we were clear that we wanted to see consideration and some action on that. And we did get the response that we wanted at the time.
BRIGGS: In the past couple of years, women’s sports have faced a new challenge, and Title IX is right at the center. The coronavirus pandemic hit college athletics budgets hard. For some schools, the only way to stay afloat was to cut some sports teams. So they had to make a difficult decision: which ones go away? In Division I alone, at least a hundred different sports teams were cut across more than two dozen schools. And there are many more at smaller colleges. That adds up to thousands of athletes who can’t play and hundreds of coaches and staff members out of a job.
One of those schools was Fresno State University, which cut women’s lacrosse, along with men’s tennis and wrestling. The lacrosse players say they’re the victims of sex discrimination. They’re suing Fresno State in federal court. Among other violations, they say the university isn’t meeting the Title IX requirement to provide proportional opportunities for women and men.
SAILER: Universities have a hard leg to stand on when they cut women's sports because, you know, to be honest, I don't know of a one that really meets the proportionality—maybe there are, but I don't know many—that meet the proportionality standard. So you have to prove you've either met all the interest of the students or that you're continuing to add sports. And so cutting sports when there's clear student interest and your proportionality numbers aren't aligned with Title IX—I think you run into a real buzz saw with that one.
BRIGGS: The Fresno State case is still in court.
But other programs are still getting back on their feet after the COVID pandemic.
At Princeton, most of the 2020 lacrosse season was canceled, and so was last year.
In their first full season since 2019, the Tigers won the Ivy League Championship—their seventh in a row. They advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament and lost a heartbreaker to a tough Syracuse team. During the season Little Kari missed a few games with an injury, but she made it back on the field.
BUONANNO: You know, I've been standing at practice the last couple of days and you realize, you know, when it's taken away from you how much you really love it. I mean, that's kind of obvious, but it serves to be very true. I've been jealous on the sidelines recently, so I want to get back there as soon as possible.
BRIGGS: As Little Kari described the training tools she has access to from the program, it kinda blew my mind. When Big Kari played, the team might give each player one stick to last their entire career. Little Kari gets two sticks a year. And remember how it was a big deal when the team finally provided sports bras? Well this year the lacrosse team wears high-tech clothes that give off infrared radiation, which is supposed to help you recover faster.
BUONANNO: I think we're also really fortunate to have, like, a lot of really cool technology that I don't think you guys were maybe utilizing when Big Kari was on the team. So, you know, we're filming like every practice, every game. You know, you can't be a competitive D-I team at this point and not be using film as an important tool to kind of grow as a team. So I think that's huge for us.
SAILER: And so many other aspects of technology like the polar heart rate devices that they wear. And so, you know, we can monitor their training zones and their cardio loads and make adjustments for each athlete
SAILER: I mean, things that weren't even in the imagination of the players.
NOVAK: Well, and not to mention the weight training. I mean, we just touched upon it. I think maybe we had two or three sessions just to kind of say, maybe this will work.
SAILER: I don't remember what—you know I was only there in your last year—but I remember when I started coaching, like, that was on me, right? I had to design the program, teach the program, monitor the program. There's so much more support for student-athletes than there was back in the day. Both men and women.
BRIGGS: So I have a final question for each of you. Nobody has to answer in any particular order, so jump in if you have it. So why is it important to you to play sports? And in particular, do you think it's important to have a law that guarantees women have equal access to play them?
NOVAK: I think it is such—sports are just a part of my life. To me, it offered that balance when you're in school, which was so healthy. So not only did it give me a community to belong to and an outlet to move and participate but then allowed me to be the best I could be academically too. And I'm not saying that there are not challenges involved with that, but I can't imagine not being at school and not playing, to be honest. I don't know what that looks like because it was just kind of who I am. So.
BUONANNO: I’d agree. Like I don't really know a time—can't remember a time in my life that I wasn't ever, you know, playing something. My family will joke when I'm like, you know, in a mood or being annoying, like, “Kari, have you run today?” Like, I was meant to play sports, like I just know that. And so to have that protected, I think, is very important.
SAILER: And I'll say that, you know, I've had the privilege of hearing from so many of my alums since my retirement was announced, and it's just amazing to me how many of them say that the lessons they learned on the lacrosse field, you know, those things they rely on every day. They've gotten coaching. They know how to take feedback from a boss. They’ve learned how to deal with different personalities, and I just think it's invaluable. I know it has been in my life, and I feel like the lives of women who—and girls—who play sports are just enriched in so many ways, and the life lessons that you learn really do make a positive difference for you.
BRIGGS: (On Princeton campus) And I’m walking onto campus from the stadium, and it’s—the sun has set but it’s not fully dark yet.
(Narration) Outside the Princeton lacrosse stadium, there’s a dedication etched into a silver metallic plaque.
It says: “In honor of those athletes of Princeton whose virtues of fair play, loyalty, perseverance, and unflinching courage are ingrained in the American character and manifest on these battlefields.” And then there’s a Latin phrase—and bear with me on my pronunciation. Qui audet vincit: Those who dare, win.
Fifty years ago, the U.S. dared to ensure that everyone regardless of sex gets the same opportunities so that women and girls today could keep daring on the field.
SOUNDBANK SEGMENT: Hey, this is Jacob Pinter from the Nat Geo audio team. We’re pushing even farther to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world with a segment called Soundbank: Earth, one sound at a time. Soundbank brings you the world through the ears of Nat Geo Explorers and photographers on assignment.
This week: Two recordings that show why listening to forests can reveal how healthy they are. This is a little bit like going to the eye doctor. I’m gonna play the two sounds, and I want you to tell me which one sounds better.
OK, ready? Number one …
(Sound of a tropical forest)
Or number two?
(Sound of a tropical forest)
Here’s number one…
(Sound of a tropical forest)
And here’s number two.
(Sound of a tropical forest)
So which one is the healthy forest? If you picked number two, congrats—and you might have a future as a forest ecologist. Here’s why these two sound so different. They come from Explorer Pooja Choksi, who recorded them in central India. Sound number two comes from a healthy dry tropical forest. Not only does this forest have big trees, it also has saplings and smaller trees on the forest floor. That provides plenty of habitat for insects and birds and everything else that makes noise.
Sound number one, however, comes from a forest being overtaken by an invasive shrub. It’s called Lantana camara, and according to Pooja it can be a menace. The shrub chokes out those saplings on the forest floor. In the recording, the insects and birds sound far away because there’s nowhere for them to live in this degraded forest. Pooja plans to keep listening to the forest. She says it’s a promising tool to measure change over time.
In just a few months since we launched Soundbank, we’ve explored how important it is to listen. Behind the scenes, we’ve pushed the boundaries of storytelling by using these sounds to create spatial audio experiences, and we're excited to share more with you in the coming months. Until then, keep listening.
All right Amy, it’s all yours.
BRIGGS: If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app, and consider a National Geographic subscription. You get exclusive access to stories published every single day, curated newsletters delivered straight to your inbox, and unlimited access to our archives going back 130 years. Plus, it’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe. The link is right there in the show notes.
Also in the show notes: Dive deeper into the history of Title IX. Find out why we needed it, and how its opponents pushed back. And check out ESPN’s Fifty/50, a month-long initiative that explores stories at the intersection of women, sports, culture, and the fight for equality.
That’s all in the show notes. Right there in your podcast app.
This week’s episode is produced by senior producer Jacob Pinter. Our producers are Khari Douglas, Ilana Strauss, and Marcy Thompson. Our senior producers include Brian Gutierrez. Our senior editor is Eli Chen. Our manager of audio is Carla Wills. Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who edited this episode. Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer. Our photo editor is Julie Hau. Ted Woods sound designed this episode. Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music. Special thanks to Eve Troeh and the team at ESPN Daily and to Dan Kearns and the Princeton University Broadcast Center.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. Nathan Lump is National Geographic editor in chief. And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. See ya at Hoagie Haven.
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