Insights and Impact

Leveling the Playing Field

When Eagles accept a challenge, they often assume the mantle from generations of changemakers and trailblazers who came before them. This issue: gender equality in sports


Illustra­tion by
Sean McCabe

Karen Leetzow

An in-house lawyer tends to flames. It’s a profession that demands dexterity in extinguishing competing fires when they ignite—from intellectual property to human resources to antitrust law. When Karen Leetzow, WCL/JD ’91, became the United States Soccer Federation’s chief legal officer in August 2020, the 20-year NASCAR veteran knowingly walked toward a four-alarm fire.

In March 2019, 28 members of the US Women’s National Team sued US Soccer over “institutionalized gender discrimination,” from pay to working conditions. As the national team successfully defended its FIFA Women’s World Cup title that summer, “e-qual pay!” became a rallying cry in the stands and beyond. By the following spring, US Soccer was apologizing for positions many blasted as sexist. (In a March 2020 court filing, for example, its outside counsel repeatedly cited the “different level of speed and strength” required in the men’s game.)

Leetzow brought to the (bargaining) table three decades of experience negotiating complicated deals and a belief that people, not courtrooms, are most successful in solving legal issues. “There was no black letter law telling us how to solve all of these moving parts,” she says. “It went back to what I think is the core of any good deal: the relationships between the parties.”

In February 2022, a “long odyssey” toward rebuilding them yielded a historic breakthrough: a $24 million settlement, including $22 million in back pay. Three months later, US Soccer finalized collective bargaining agreements with the men’s and women’s national team players’ associations, making it the first soccer federation to guarantee “identical economic terms” for both senior national teams.

“We’re at a pivotal time in our country’s history in moving women’s sports forward,” Leetzow says. “All of us supporting it and all the companies out there providing tournament dollars, putting on events or even television broadcasts, need to find ways to help support the women’s game. It’s only going to benefit all of us in sports if that happens.”

Women’s Athletics: A Timeline

Collage of women's athletics, from Maud Watson to Roberta Gibb to Toni Stone

1884: Maud Watson wins the inaugural women’s singles tournament at Wimbledon, defeating older sister Lilian in three sets in the finals.

1893: Smith College holds the first women’s college basketball game, a 5–4 win by the sophomores over the freshmen, under modified rules that divide the court into three sections. 

1896: Women are barred from competing in the first modern Olympics. Founder Pierre de Coubertin says their participation in the games would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and improper.”

Stanford defeats Cal in the first intercollegiate women’s basketball game.

1900: Twenty-two women compete in the Paris Olympics—out of 997 total athletes.

1918: Bella Reay nets four goals in the finals of England’s Munitionettes Cup, sending Blyth Spartans Ladies FC to victory before 22,000 spectators at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park.

1926: Gertrude Ederle, winner of a gold and two bronzes at the 1924 Olympics, swims across the English Channel in 14.5 hours—at least 2 hours faster than the five men who had previously completed the feat.  

1935: Babe Didrikson Zaharias, a gold medalist in the 80-meter hurdles and javelin at the 1932 Olympics—and later a 10-time women’s golf major champion—is the first female athlete depicted on a Wheaties box (a year after aviator Elinor Smith). Gymnast Mary Lou Retton becomes the first woman to appear on the front of the box 49 years later.

1941: Brazil’s government bans women from participating in organized sports “incompatible with the conditions of their nature,” including soccer. The law is not revoked until 1979.

1950: After the Women’s Professional Golf Association ceases operation in December 1949, the Ladies Professional Golf Association launches. Its first tournament: the 1950 Tampa Women’s Open.

1953: Toni Stone becomes the first woman to play in the Negro Leagues. Despite hostility from fans, Indianapolis Clowns teammates, and opponents, she plays a solid defensive second base and hits .243 in 50 games.

1966: Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb finishes the Boston Marathon in 3:21:40—unofficially, after officials reject her entry form two months before the race, claiming “women are physiologically incapable of running 26.2 miles.”

1971: Two-hundred eighty colleges and universities become charter members of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). It holds 41 championships in 19 sports over the next decade.

1972: Title IX passes as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. Prior to its passage, 1 in 27 girls in the US play high school sports. Today, 2 in 5 participate.

Billie Jean King wins her third US Open. Her prize check: $10,000—$15,000 less than men’s singles winner Ilie Nastase. After she threatens to boycott the 1973 tournament, the US Open implements equal prizes for men and women.

1973: Ninety million viewers across the globe watch King defeat Bobby Riggs in straight sets in the Battle of the Sexes, three months after she forms the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). 

1975: Judy Sweet is promoted to athletic director at the University of California, San Diego, making her the first female AD in charge of both a men’s and women’s athletics program. She becomes the first woman to lead the NCAA 16 years later.

1976: The NCAA files a lawsuit, challenging Title IX’s legality and claiming athletic programs do not directly receive federal funds. It is dismissed two years later.

1981: The NCAA begins sponsoring women’s championships, and the AIAW files an antitrust lawsuit. It fails—and the AIAW folds—the following year.

1987: Gayle Sierens calls play-by-play of the Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs on NBC. Thirty years pass before another woman, Beth Mowins, is in front of the microphone for an NFL game.   

Collage of women's athletics, from Brandi Chastain to Serena Williams to Karen Leetzow

1992: The NCAA publishes its first gender equity study. Among its findings: 70 percent of student-athletes are men and 70 percent of scholarship funds go to men. 

1995: Nike unveils the Air Swoopes, making basketball star Sheryl Swoopes the first female athlete with a signature athletic shoe.

1999: A crowd of 90,815—then a record for a women’s sporting event—packs into the Rose Bowl for the US women’s national team’s penalty-shootout win over China in the Women’s World Cup final.

2003: At 23, Danica Patrick becomes the first woman to lead the Indy 500. She takes her first checkered flag in the IndyCar Series five years later in Japan.

2007: The French Open becomes the last of the four tennis grand slams to announce equal prize money for men and women across the board.

2011: ESPN and the NCAA reach a 14-year, $500 million multimedia deal to broadcast 24 women’s championships, including the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

2012: After 80 years of excluding women as members, Augusta National Golf Club adds its first two: former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and banker Darla Moore. It is believed that only six of about 300 members are women.

2013: Serena Williams earns a WTA record $12.4 million on the tennis court. She retires in 2022 with $94.3 million in career earnings—and $350 million in endorsements.

2014: Becky Hammon joins the San Antonio Spurs bench, becoming the first female assistant coach in a North American major professional sports league.

2019: Twenty-eight members of the US women’s national soccer team file a gender discrimination suit against US Soccer, citing pay, coaching, medical care, and other inequities. 

2021: Oregon women’s basketball player Sedona Prince posts a TikTok highlighting the disparities between men’s and women’s weight rooms at NCAA basketball tournament sites. It has been favorited 3.5 million times.

Connecticut defeats UCLA, 71–61, in the first-ever, regular season women’s college basketball game broadcast on ABC, 48 years after its first men’s regular season broadcast.

2022: Oklahoma’s Women’s College World Series win over Texas is watched by 1.74 million viewers—200,000 more than Mississippi’s Men’s College World Series clincher against Oklahoma. 

Basketball star Brittney Griner is sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison for drug possession. Seeking to in some cases quadruple WNBA salaries that average $120,600—one sixtieth of the NBA mean—70 athletes compete overseas during the league’s offseason.