But Friday hummed with sadness. By taking an ax to Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that nearly 50 years ago guaranteed women the right to abortion, the Supreme Court demolished a signal of freedom in the battle for gender equality — freedom that helped female athletes achieve glory that many now take for granted.
Tears welled in the soccer star Megan Rapinoe’s eyes as she spoke at a news conference. Rapinoe called the Supreme Court’s timing “cruel” and spoke of living in a country “where you have a constant, violent, unrelenting tide against you, an onslaught as a woman.”
King, who for all these years has been a prime torchbearer for female empowerment in sports, made her disgust plain. “This decision will not end abortion,” she wrote on Twitter. “What it will end is safe and legal access to this vital medical procedure. It is a sad day in the United States.”
I called Crissy Perham, a three-time Olympic medalist in swimming who spoke to me last year about the abortion she received in college, an experience that led her to sign an amicus brief filed to the Supreme Court last year in support of Roe. When I spoke with her on Friday, I heard despair similar to that King and Rapinoe had shared.
“It’s so hypocritical to listen to anyone who is celebrating more opportunities for girls and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, if you have an ectopic pregnancy or decide to end your pregnancy, you could be put in jail,’” Perham said.
Perham won multiple national championships at the University of Arizona on a scholarship that probably would not have existed without Title IX. She was among the brief’s 500 signatories, alongside Rapinoe, the Olympic water polo player Ashleigh Johnson and the players’ associations for both the W.N.B.A. and National Women’s Soccer League.
Their argument was straightforward.
Roe allowed female athletes the option to plan exactly when and whether they wanted to give birth, no small thing given the finite time performers have to compete at their peak. Moreover, a through line connects the right to control one’s body with the empowerment and confidence that are currently sparking extraordinary success for women in sports.
As just one example, consider the success of the U.S. team at the Tokyo Olympics. American women brought home a majority of the gold medals, a dominant performance that “would not have occurred without reproductive rights and the right to abortion,” said Joanna Wright, a lawyer who helped author the brief, during an October interview.
Think about how far we have come in 50 years.
We are not surprised when women’s college softball and basketball take center stage on national television.
We are not surprised to see women making millions from endorsements or earning the same prize money as men in professional tennis.
We should not be surprised at how sports and law intersected in the early 1970s to create the world in which we live now.
In 1972, Title IX became law, and abortion became legal a year later in 1973. In the same window, women’s sports gained new legitimacy among the masses when King walloped Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes and helped legitimize women’s professional tennis.
In the 1970s, Jay Berman was a top aide to Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, who has been called “the father of Title IX” for writing the legislation and helping guide it through the Senate.
We just got a lesson, Berman, 84, told me on Friday, sadness thick in his voice. Women’s rights should not be taken for granted in sports or any other part of life. The fight continues. “Every day,” he said. “Every day.”
There are certainly abortion opponents in sports. On Friday they stayed mostly quiet, at least in my observation, though the former N.F.L. tight end Benjamin Watson wrote on Twitter that, “This turn in jurisprudence marks an end to an era of state sanctioned disregard for human dignity where profitability trumped personhood.”
I’ve been writing about women’s sports a great deal of late. I’ve talked to female athletes about having their power recognized. About the role journalists play in that effort. And about the difficult balance of establishing oneself as a top performer while trying to plan a family and take care of your reproductive health.
I feel a kinship with these women. I see my mother, wife, cousins, colleagues and friends in them. As a Black man living in America, their struggle for empowerment is one I connect with and meditate upon.
A big part of any success I’ve had in life springs from my father’s achievements. In the early 1950s, he became one of the first Black basketball players at the University of Oregon. My dad’s college athletic scholarship, college education and athletic connections propelled his family into the middle class.
Oregon did not have a varsity women’s basketball team when my father played. That didn’t happen, at least in the elite and well-funded way we see today, until Title IX, which was passed during a seven-month stretch in which two pillars of equal rights for women became law. Now only one pillar remains standing.
This week began with celebrating advancements championed by female athletes such as King and Perham. It ended in uncertainty.
“Disgusted, disappointed, disturbed,” read a social media post from TOGETHXR, the media company created by the soccer star Alex Morgan, the snowboarder Chloe Kim, the swimmer Simone Manuel, and the basketball great Sue Bird.
“But, we are not done,” the statement continued. “We’ll never stop fighting.”
A new generation of female athletes exists, and they will not bow. That alone is cause for celebration in these discordant times.