BRISTOL, Conn. - Billie Jean King talked about Bobby Riggs and Maria Sharapova. Lyn St. James talked about Danica Patrick. Chris McKendry, who hosted "The Power of IX" legends panel on the ESPN campus, introduced the women's teams from the 1996 Olympics and 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup into the discussion.
Yet it was Bernice Sandler's words Friday that grabbed me by the historical throat, hit me over the head with a 2-by-4 of perspective. The Godmother of Title IX, an octogenarian, talked about a slide projector.
"When I went to elementary school, I wanted to run the projector," said Sandler, who grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. "It was very new. It was the height of audio-visual equipment at the time. They wouldn't let the girls do it. If you asked why, you were told boys were good at that and girls weren't. I wanted to be a crossing guard, and again they didn't let girls do it."
Next Saturday will mark the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX. Thirty-seven words, a little clumsy in wording, only a portion of a larger education bill, without any mention of athletics, would become one of the greatest pieces of American legislation in the past half century.
"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 educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
Maybe it's a slice of romance or maybe it's the full truth, but I'd like to believe that a young girl being told she was incapable of running a freaking projector is the seminal moment in athletic equality in this country.
If Sandler, the first to file lawsuits after failing to be considered for any of several jobs at the University of Maryland and being told in 1969 she came on too strong for a woman, were to operate that slide projector today, surely she could flash through a long list of great children of Title IX: Mia Hamm, Lisa Leslie, Diana Taurasi .
And if Sandler, who would go on to champion the cause for equality, were to remain at the projector, she could show a list of inspired legislators who made Title IX a reality: Edith Green, Patsy Mink, Birch Bayh .
Yet in idolizing the greatest athletic champions and marking their achievements in this celebratory week of Title IX, I fear we will forget the other 99.9 percent of Americans - men and women - who have benefited and will benefit from one of our democracy's most inspired moves toward fairness for all.
"Did you know that in 1972, women were not even allowed to get a credit card in their own name?" St. James said.
In retelling some of the Title IX stories - granted, there are some dandies like Chris Ernst and the Yale women's rowing team stripping naked in 1976 to gain equal access to showers and better boats - I also fear too many of us will come to believe that on its 40th birthday, Title IX has solved all the problems.
"That's the real danger," Sandler said. "We have not. Virtually every high school in the country is out of compliance. A lot of colleges are, too."
The number of girls competing in sports has risen from 300,000 to more than three million in 40 years. And with Title IX, medical degrees for women have risen from 9 percent to 48 percent, law degrees from 9 percent to 49 percent. These numbers mark a profound change for the better in America. Yet as King pointed out, girls still have 1.3 million fewer chances to play high school sports than boys.
"The best part of Title IX," King said, "is it gives everyone the opportunity to be champions in life."
And, to me, this speaks to the most profound beauty of Title IX.
"Sports teach you teamwork, leadership, being in a supportive role," King said. "It teaches us how to navigate in our culture. I use the lessons from sports every single day in my business life and in real life. Relationships, how to communicate, how to listen, how to notice body language, those are the nuances you learn on the playing fields of sports.
"We need more boys and girls in sports. The strength of our nation really depends on it. From a military point of view, we're in trouble right now. We can't even pass boot camp. We have to have pre-boot camp to get to boot camp. It's a matter of national security."
The English once insisted the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. You know what? Some of our best doctors and lawyers and teachers were conceived on the playing field of Title IX.
"We talk about obesity in our nation with our young people," Ann Meyers Drysdale said. "Being active is so important for young boys and girls. And the life skills you learn in sports don't quit. What kind of courage do you have to compete when people say, 'You're not good enough. You're not pretty enough. You're not smart enough.'? There are always going to be people who tell you that you can't do something.
"The decisions you make you can use through sports to be competitive, to show your strength. How you get along with your coach is how you're going to get along with our boss. Self-esteem, teamwork, having sports in your life as a child is not only good for your health, you can use it in life. Men have always had that."
King said one of the horrors of her young life was giving an oral book report in the fourth grade. She was petrified of speaking in public. The turning point, she said, came in the third set in a 13-and-under tournament when she began to hyperventilate and almost dumped the championship match because she was too afraid to thank people.
"I was scared to death," she said, "but I hated losing even more. I remember I said thank you and they gave me a radio with a big gold dial. My dad kept it the rest of his life."
Even a half-century later, King grew emotional in the retelling of that story. She was pre-Title IX. California contemporaries Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe got scholarships to USC and UCLA. King worked two jobs to get through Cal State Los Angeles. She also had her dad.
"He believed in me, told me to dream my dreams as much as he told my brother (Randy Moffitt, who played for the San Francisco Giants) to dream his. Fathers, you are a huge influence with your daughters. I cannot stress that enough."
St. James, meanwhile, raced in the Indianapolis 500. Yet to this day, the most scared she ever was the first time she played field hockey. To that point, she had only taken piano lessons. No sports. That would change at an all-girls school.
"I never would have had the confidence, the guts, the initiative to show up in a race car without having that sports experience," she said.
So here's to Title IX.
It gives all of us - all of us - a chance to be champions in life. Even champion slide projector operators.