Mama Taj sees Title IX's work -- in dad, daughters

A school coach had to convince her father to let her play sports. Now she revels in seeing her girls do the same.

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Lynx Taj McWilliams-Franklin during WNBA game between the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury at Target Center May 20, 2012 in Minneapolis, MN

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Taj McWilliams-Franklin, the WNBA's oldest player, was 19 months old when Title IX became law 40 years ago Saturday.

As a young teen, she started discovering that attitudes toward girls and women participating in athletics sometimes change slowly -- even in her own home. Her high school girls' basketball coach had to visit McWilliams-Franklin's father, Marvin, to persuade him to let her play on a team.

He is one of her biggest fans now. And McWilliams-Franklin, a mother of three girls, is a strong supporter of the law. She will wear one of the Lynx's special Title IX jerseys proudly when the league's top team plays the Chicago Sky at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Target Center, a game nationally televised on ESPN.

Sky players also will put on jerseys with a Roman numeral IX on the front, commemorating the day President Richard Nixon signed the historic bill. During the game, the Lynx will honor a handful of pioneers in women's athletics, including Cynthia Cooper, one of the WNBA's first stars, and Gigi Marvin and Carrie Tollefson, Minnesotans who were Olympians in hockey and track, respectively.

Also at Target Center will be McWilliams-Franklin's two youngest daughters: Schera Sampson, a 22-year-old Lynx ballgirl, and Maia, 9, sitting beside her dad.

Bernadette Mattox, a former teammate at Connecticut, told McWilliams-Franklin about 6-on-6 girls' basketball in high school. "[Mattox] couldn't go past half-court because they didn't think women had the constitution to play full-court," McWilliams-Franklin said. "So you only had three [players] on offense at one time or three on defense. You couldn't do both. And I thought, 'Wow,' that was the beginning of understanding that women have the same heart and lungs that men have, and the move toward equality. And Title IX was about that."

Title IX required gender equity for boys and girls in every education program that receives federal funding. In 1971 before Title IX, 290,000 girls -- one in 27 -- played high school sports. Today the number is 3.2 million.

Marvin Franklin, whom his daughter describes as a typical gentleman from the South, was not too keen on athletic equality.

"After [high school] games, I had to be taken straight home because I was needed at home," McWilliams-Franklin said.

Nowadays, her father, a playground basketball legend, follows McWilliams-Franklin's career closely.

"He calls me and he is telling me about, 'OK, New York is doing this and this. You all got to be ready. I need you to box out more,' " she said. "Over the years he has slowly come around, and now I have daughters."

Sampson will be a senior forward at Shawnee State in Portsmouth, Ohio. She loves having a mom in the WNBA and loves playing basketball herself. Equal opportunity in athletics for women is taken for granted by her generation, Sampson said. She appreciates it, though, and said she couldn't fathom what her life would be like without basketball.

Maia appears to be on a different athletic path: Her sport is tennis.

"She has an opportunity to choose any sport she wants because of the advancements of Title IX," McWilliams-Franklin said. "If she didn't want to play tennis -- wanted to golf, wanted to play soccer, whatever they wanted to play -- the fact it is available to [women] in college now is what is important to me."

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