As Title IX Turns 50, an Accomplished Athlete Looks Back, and Ahead

Multnomah Athletic Club member and St. Mary’s Academy Athletic Director Anna Maria Lopez has a long and illustrious career that spans high school, college, and professional athletics. Her many accomplishments include being named Oregon Prep Athlete of the Year excelling in basketball, volleyball, softball, and discus; playing on two national championship volleyball teams at the University of Southern California (USC); lettering three years in basketball at USC; and being recognized as Oregon’s top Athletic Director in 2001 and 2017.

As MAC and the Multnomah Athletic Foundation honor the 50th anniversary of Title IX — legislation passed in June 1972 that prohibits federally funded education and programs from discrimination based on sex — Lopez shares some of her experiences in athletics, and her perspective on how women’s athletics have evolved since the early ’70s.

As a member of a large family, and the third of eight children, sports were always integral to Lopez’s life. “I grew up on a team,” she says. “Plus, my father was a coach, so athletics was very much part of our lives. As a child, I tagged along to my brothers’ games, and naturally thought ‘it will be my turn next.’”

In fifth grade, Lopez’s turn came in the form of volleyball, a sport she would go on to play at USC, helping the school win the first NCAA women’s volleyball national championship in 1981. “When I started playing volleyball in grade school, the young women who coached us were actually high school students from St. Mary’s,” she recalls. “They were coaching us because, at that time, they didn’t have the opportunity to play, and I didn’t think anything of it. In hindsight, we were so fortunate to have them because they knew what they were doing, and they were fun.”

As a distinguished athlete who competed at the highest levels in high school and college, was an all-star, professional volleyball player, and was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, Lopez has a broad lens from which to view women’s athletics since the passing of Title IX 50 years ago.

“I was very fortunate as an athlete. I was at the right place at the right time and around the right people. When I attended St. Mary’s Academy [graduating in 1978], we had our own gym and quality uniforms. And the nuns, some of whom had played sports in the 1940s, were very supportive! At USC, the women’s teams were treated well, and we had access to top-notch equipment and facilities,” Lopez explains. “If you treat people like champions, you get champions.”

Although her own experiences were mostly positive, Lopez explains that was not necessarily the case across the board. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many women athletes did not have access to regular gym times, had little-to-no practice gear, and often did not have proper uniforms. Many had to “makedo” using facilities at off-hours when they were not being used by men.

Some of these inequities persisted into the early 1990s, 20 years after Title IX had passed. Lopez shares that as an athletic director she was involved in discussions about how at some local high schools, Friday nights were reserved as “game night” for boys, while game nights for girls were relegated to school nights. “Thankfully, many people involved — both men and women — made sure this issue was addressed.”

Equitable Access to Athletics Goes Beyond Competition

As an athletic director and educator, Lopez stresses the importance of providing women with access to athletics, not only for competitive reasons, but also for personal development. “Giving girls and young women an opportunity to play on a team provides a safe environment to push themselves, which is very important,” she says. “When you’re on a team, you learn to give and receive constructive feedback that leads to improvement — an important life skill. You also learn that it’s OK not to be perfect. An important part of pushing yourself to be better means it’s OK to make mistakes. Prior to Title IX, girls and young women did not have the opportunity to experience the benefits of being on an organized team.”

As Lopez reflects on her career and Title IX’s effects, she acknowledges that women competing at a professional level still confront obstacles, and that limited opportunities and equal compensation issues persist. Lopez confronted this reality in her own career; her male peers who competed at the same level had access to many more professional and economic opportunities. “I admit I found this very frustrating and would like to see that change,” she says. “The Portland Thorns is really a bright spot. They are a professional women’s sports team that generates as much, and sometimes more, excitement as their male counterparts; that makes me feel hopeful.”

As with other transformative legislation, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, Title IX continues to evolve. Lopez feels that for all the gains women have made in athletics since 1972 there is still more work to do. “I see Title IX as a catalyst for women to pursue opportunities in athletics, not just as competitors, but also as coaches, athletic directors and as executives in sports-related industries, where women can pursue fulfilling careers and excel,” she says. “Title IX was the springboard, not the solution.”

Written by Laurie Harquail, photo by Brandon Davis.

Originally published in the June 2022 issue of The Winged M Magazine.