Margot Polivy, women’s champion in college sports, dies at 85

Margot Polivy, a high school PE teacher-turned-lawyer who tirelessly lobbied the federal government to legally ensure that college athletic departments offer women equal opportunities to participate in sports, died Oct. 7 at her home in Washington. She was 85.

Her death was confirmed by her sister Gail Polivy, who said the cause was not yet known.

In the 1970s, representing women’s groups on campuses and on Capitol Hill, Ms. Polivy (pronounced PAHL-a-vee) fought the male-dominated National Collegiate Athletic Association and helped transform the ambiguous wording of the anti-discrimination congressional mandates that they did without specific mention of sports, in a Hail Mary pass that greatly expanded the resources available to female athletes in high school and college.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 states only: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination of any kind educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

But after athletes staked claims to those benefits, with Title IX interpreted to include nondiscrimination in sports, Ms. Polivy, a lawyer for the Association for Women’s Interscholastic Athletics, partnered with the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education to push , that the prepared provisions for the implementation of the legislation meet the expectations of the organizations’ supporters.

Margaret Dunkle, whose 1974 analysis documenting discrimination against female college athletes provided the blueprint for the regulations, said of Ms. Polivy in an email: “She was a key player in shaping the Title IX athletic regulations that opened athletic scholarships to women and set standards to ensure that women’s teams receive the funding and resources they need to achieve excellence.”

Women’s groups Mrs. Polivy represented priority amateur student athletics as a form of physical education. That view contrasted with the predominantly male model of college sports, which prioritized recruiting, scholarships and winning to generate financial contributions from alumni — and, critics said, encouraged academic laxity.

Instead of drafting legislation that would appease athletic directors by exempting revenue-generating sports like football from regulation, Ms. Polivy, walking around the Capitol without a desk, sketched an alternative — which she wrote on a piece of paper affixed to the back of Representative Shirley Chisholm, a Democrat. from Brooklyn. The resulting bill was introduced by Senator Jacob K. Javits, Republican of New York.

Her alternative gave Title IX supporters what they wanted all along, writes Michael McCambridge in The Big Time: How the 1970s Transformed Sports in America (2023): “that athletic departments would offer roughly equal opportunity and relatively similar resources, especially in scholarships.” The bill, he said, “essentially assured colleges that they wouldn’t have to spend as much on gym equipment as they would on football gear.”

Women’s rights groups had until then reluctantly accepted some of the economic realities behind collegiate sports programs. Ms. Polivy accomplished what she did, Mr. McCambridge wrote, by injecting the Women’s Interscholastic Athletic Association with “a wide-eyed idealism with a dose of tough love for the realities of the tortuous world of politics and the law.”

Margot Polivy was born on April 25, 1938 in the Bronx. Her father, Charles, sells paint and wallpaper. Her mother, Ruth (Klein) Polivy, was a homemaker.

After graduating from Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, Ms. Polivy earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Hunter College in Manhattan. He then taught physical education at Hunter College High School and received his law degree from New York University School of Law in 1964.

She was then hired as an associate attorney by the Federal Communications Commission, where she oversaw the Fairness Doctrine, which required equal air time for political candidates. She worked for Representative Bela Abzug of New York in Washington from 1971 to 1972 and then started a law firm that became known as Renouf & Polivy. It was from there that she was drawn to the Women’s Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Mrs Polivi’s sister is her only immediate survivor. Her life partner Katrina Renouf died in 2009.

Ms. Polivy “was a tough negotiator and a tenacious advocate,” Ms. Dunkle said. “At the same time, her New York elbows were tempered by an irreverent and engaging sense of humor that lightened the mood and made a yes more likely.”

The Association for Women’s Intercollegiate Athletics was eventually incorporated into the NCAA, which assumed control of women’s sports and ceased operations in 1982. By the early 1980s, the courts were limiting the scope of Title IX.

”But if time did not lead to agreement, it at least served some constructive purposes,” Ms. Polivy wrote in a New York Times opinion essay in 1978. ”It allowed a period of emotional adjustment during which all the old arguments about preferences of ‘normal’ girls to passive pursuits are universally recognized for the folly they represent.’

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