Title IX: Nine (or so) to know on the 50th anniversary

Compilation photo of title IX pioneers Billie Jean King, Venkayla Haynes, Tatyana McFadden, Sedona Prince, Rebekah Bruesehoff, Patsy Mink, Annie Clark, Andrea Pino, Bunny Sandler, and Justine Siegal
Getty Images

By Risa Isard

Fifty years ago, Title IX changed the landscape for women across the United States – on sports fields and in classrooms.

Before President Richard Nixon signed the law forbidding sex-based discrimination at all federally funded educational institutions, women accounted for less than 10% of all medical and law school graduates while fewer than 4% of girls played high school sports. What’s more: it was legal for schools to deny women classroom opportunities, reject them from colleges just for being women, prevent them from competing in athletics, discriminate against pregnant students, sanction hazing and sexual harassment, and retaliate against those who advocated for equality.

Title IX’s impact has been prolific (albeit the progress imperfect and unfinished), with some calling it the most important legislation for women in America after the right to vote. As part of On Her Turf’s celebration of the landmark civil rights law, we recognize these nine (or so) to know who paved the way for Title IX, have championed its transformative legacy, and given women a sporting chance.

I. The Title IX Starters: Dr. Bunny Sandler, Rep. Edith Green, Rep. Patsy Mink, and Sen. Birch Bayh

It was 1969 and Dr. Bernice “Bunny” Sandler had recently earned her doctorate from the University of Maryland. Her department had seven openings but failed to consider her for any of them. When she asked a colleague about it, he told her “Let’s face it, you come on too strong for a woman.”

Sandler’s then husband helped her understand that there were plenty of strong men in the department and therefore, this was sex discrimination. “It was the first time I had ever thought of myself as having been discriminated against,” Sandler, who died in 2019, recalled decades later.

But just because Sandler had a term for the discrimination she encountered didn’t mean the discrimination itself was against the law.

Over the next few years, she amassed an impressive team and launched a master strategy for change. Some of her most notable teammates: Rep. Edith Green (D-Ore.), Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii), and Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) in Congress.

Green chaired the Special Subcommittee on Education, sponsored Congress’s first-ever hearings on sex discrimination in education, and ultimately drafted Title IX and sponsored it in the House.

She was joined by Rep. Patsy Mink, the first woman of color in Congress. Mink would become one of Title IX’s strongest voices, leading the bill to be ceremoniously re-named ‘the Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act’ after her passing.

Meanwhile across the Capitol, Sen. Birch Bayh launched a parallel effort in the Senate, where he was also busy authoring the Equal Rights Amendment.

Dr. Bunny Sandler
Dr. Bernice “Bunny” Sandler was considered “the godmother” of Title IX (J.M. Eddins, Jr./Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Collectively, “the Starters” and their other behind-the-scenes colleagues – including Pauli Murray and Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) – fought for a law that they believed would do the most good and be the most inclusive.

Between Sandler’s awakening in 1969 and June 23, 1972, when President Nixon signed Title IX into law, the bill had several starts and stops. There were efforts to limit its application, delay its implementation, and defeat it in its entirety. Given that the bill’s origins stemmed from Sandler’s experiences on the job market and the fact that the conversations in Congress focused on academic employment and admissions, the potential impact on sports was largely ignored.

“One member of the Senate needed reassurance that women would not be allowed to play football, but that was it,” Sandler wrote in 2007.

“By 1972, when Title IX was close to passage, there were about five or six of us (plus Rep. Green) who realized that Title IX would cover sports and athletics, but again, we had no idea of how bad the sex discrimination was in the world of college sports or in K-12,” Sandler continued.

“My understanding of Title IX’s impact on sports was something like this: ‘Isn’t this nice! Because of Title IX, at the annual Field Day Events in schools, there will be more activities for girls.’ If those of us close to Title IX did not fully realize its impact, especially on sports, how could others have known what it would be?”

RELATED: Title IX is 50 years old. Why aren’t schools complying with the law?

II. The Superstar: Billie Jean King

Tennis great Billie Jean King was as formidable on the court (39 grand slam titles, anyone?) as she is off it. Her playing career started long before Title IX, so as a college athlete in the early 1960s, she watched as the men’s team members received scholarships while she worked two jobs. Shortly after Title IX passed, King bested Bobby Riggs in the famed Battle of the Sexes, demonstrating to the 90 million people watching worldwide that women deserved equal opportunity in sport.

“I wanted King/Riggs to change the hearts and minds of people to more closely align with the legislation of Title IX,” King reflected decades later. “I was afraid if I did not win we would give people a reason to weaken Title IX. It was definitely a pressure-packed moment.”

In a symbolic victory lap, King co-founded the Women’s Tennis Association, as well as the Women’s Sports Foundation, an organization that continues to be integral to expanding opportunities in women’s sports and enforcing Title IX.

III. The Athlete-Advocate: Tatyana McFadden

Tatyana McFadden is a force. Between 20 Paralympic medals, becoming the first person to achieve a marathon “Grand Slam” (followed up by doing it for the next three years), and running the Paralympic marathon followed by five marathon majors last fall, her place as an athlete is cemented. Her legacy out of competition is perhaps even more important, though.

As a ninth-grade girl in Maryland, McFadden was supposed to be protected by Title IX – but as an athlete with a disability, she still faced discrimination. Notably, she was prohibited from racing alongside her able-bodied teammates and competitors.

“All I wanted to do was join high school track, but I was denied a uniform, I was denied (the opportunity) to race alongside others, and was practicing separately as well,” recalls McFadden. “I just thought, ‘We are in the 21st Century and I am 100% being discriminated against as a female athlete with a disability.”

McFadden and her mom sued the Howard County Public School System and won. Three years later, Maryland passed the Maryland Fitness and Athletes Equity for Students with Disabilities Act (also known as “Tatyana’s Law”). Five years after that, the US Department of Education issued a national mandate requiring equal access to extracurricular activities for students with disabilities.

SLUG: SP/MCFADDEN DATE:6/17/2004 Neg#:156642 Photog:Preston
Tatyana McFadden, then 15, trains for the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games. (Photo by Preston Keres/The The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The mandate has been called the “Title IX for people with disabilities.” It’s a fitting name. Thanks to McFadden, all kids with disabilities have a right to equitable sport.

IV. The Organizers: Dana Bolger, Alexandra Brodsky, Annie Clark, and Andrea Pino

While Title IX is often best known for its impact on women’s sports, the law is also integral to expanding opportunities for girls’ education (looking at you, shop class) and other school-affiliated activities, protecting survivors of sexual assault and harassment, and guaranteeing rights of pregnant students and those who are parents.

Perhaps no movement has transformed campus cultures in recent years than the one Dana Bolger, Alexandra Brodsky, Annie Clark, and Andrea Pino started in the 2010s, connecting universities’ obligations under Title IX to their handling of sexual assaults.

After finding each other through mutual connections and related news stories about student survivors of assault, Bolger, Brodsky, Clark, and Pino, then students or recent alumnae from three different universities across the country, worked together to make noise about Title IX violations at their alma maters and nationwide. Clark recalled connecting with Pino, “We started talking and realized that this was not an isolated incident, that it was a national epidemic and no one had really connected the dots because we had been looking at these cases in isolation.”

The four organizers shared strategic notes with each other, started conversations on campus, and filed suits against their universities. As their stories reached students across the country, they received countless notes of support and requests for advice, leading them to sit at the helm of a growing network and serve as informal consultants to survivors nationwide, in part through social media.

'The Hunting Ground' Screening And Discussion At The Coolidge
Title IX activists Annie E. Clark, left, and Andrea Pino, right, during a Q&A session in 2015. (Photo by Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

“You don’t need to be in a survivors’ group meeting to hear these stories anymore…the human connection is the same, but social media lets you do it on a completely different scale,” Bolger told the New York Times in 2013.

They formalized their collective work with the launch of national organizations Know Your IX (Bolger & Brodsky) and End Rape on Campus (Clark & Pino). In the years since, they have contributed to new legislation and authored books We Believe You (Clark & Pino) and Sexual Justice (Brodsky). Bolger, Brodsky, Clark, and Pino’s collective voices, persistence, and impressively self-taught legal acumen led to policy changes and advanced the understanding that campus sexual assault is a Title IX issue.

“If you have a campus that has rampant sexual assault, there is no equal access, mainly because female students do not feel safe going to libraries, they do not take night classes, they do not feel safe walking home at night. And because of that the campus itself is not equal,” explained Pino.

V. The Influencer: Sedona Prince

Equity in women’s sport sometimes comes in small packages, like a 37-word statute (Title IX) or a 38-second TikTok video. Sedona Prince, then a redshirt sophomore forward for the University of Oregon’s women’s basketball team, noticed disparities between the weight rooms for the men’s and women’s “March Madness” tournaments (fun fact: the women’s tournament in 2021 was not even officially branded March Madness because that was against the rules). They sent a TikTok and tweet that amassed more than 13 million views, ignited outrage, and eventually resulted in the NCAA undertaking an equity audit.

The results of that investigation were damning.

Visible changes were made ahead of the 2022 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, including equalizing the number of teams in the two tournaments, providing identical swag bags, equalizing pay for referees, and finally giving the women the right to use March Madness branding – something Prince celebrated by – how else? – posting a video to TikTok.

Of course, other systemic issues remain, like “the unit.” For every game a men’s basketball team won at the 2022 NCAA tournament, their conference received over $338,000. That money will be paid out in six years with a true value of $2.03 million. Women’s basketball teams, however, received nothing – not for making the tournament, not for winning a game, and not even for winning the NCAA title.

But thanks to Prince, disparities like these have become more visible. And her contributions are only more impressive because she managed to indict an organization that technically doesn’t even have to adhere to Title IX (the NCAA is not federally funded, while its member organizations are).

“My video was the first domino to fall and the wave it produced is still rolling,” Prince reflected to USA Today in a March 2022 essay. “What it also helped me realize is if we want change for women in sports, we have to demand it. Change is not going to come from the top. It has to start with us.”

VI. The Momentum-Maker: Justine Siegal

Justine Siegal is witnessing a watershed moment. While girls’ participation in sport has increased by nearly 1000% (thanks to sports like basketball, soccer, volleyball, track and field, swimming, tennis, golf and others with widespread support), many still consider a sport like baseball to be a “boys’ sport.”

That’s now how Siegal sees it, though.

Siegal grew up playing baseball. The most important advice she did not listen to came at 13 years old when her coach told to switch to softball because she was a girl. As she recalled, “It didn’t matter that I was one of the best players on the team, that I loved baseball, or that I practiced a lot more than any of my male friends. It only mattered that I was a girl.”

It’s a conversation too many girls still have, even though baseball and softball are different sports, requiring different skills, and Title IX requires schools offer girls the chance to try out in some circumstances.

“The day my youth baseball coach told me to quit was that day I decided to play baseball forever,” she told ESPN. She has made good on that promise to herself, making history many times over as the first woman to coach a professional men’s baseball team, to throw batting practice for an MLB team, and to coach for an MLB affiliated team.

It’s not just about her, though. As she is known to ask any chance she gets, “If you tell a girl she can’t play baseball, what else will she think she can’t do?”

Girls having access – and encouragement – to play baseball is a social justice issue that her nonprofit Baseball for All (BFA) has been tackling since 2010.

BFA started with a single all-girls team and now boasts players from 48 states and five countries that represent the organization in tournaments across the United States and compete against one another in the annual national tournament. Some of those players go on to play at the college varsity level on men’s teams, as a record six women did last year.

Others go on to take the field for their colleges in the newly launched Women’s College Club Baseball Championship. University of Washington took home the inaugural trophy in March 2022, but the proliferation of opportunity for girls and women to play baseball is the true victory.

Wherever they’re playing, Siegal and colleagues remind anyone who will listen, “When people ask, “Is that a girl?” Tell them it’s a baseball player.”

Sharp with the questions, Siegal wants to know: “More than 100,000 girls play youth baseball, but only 1,700 girls go on to play high school baseball. Their love of baseball – and their talent – didn’t just go away. So what happened to those other 99,000 players?”

VII. The Educator: Venkayla Haynes 

Venkayla Haynes is determined to stamp out gender-based violence, especially within marginalized communities. A survivor of abuse and assault, Haynes has spoken openly about how those experiences have shaped her work.

“I just felt like a lot of me was taken away,” she told The Nation. “What I wanted was for when I reported my freshman year was for me to be relieved, for me to be taken care of, and for my Title IX rights not to be violated.”

As an alumna of Spelman, a historically black women’s college, she personally confronted the added complexities Black survivors of sexual assault face, “We always come to these situations where we can’t come forward because we want to protect Black men or protect our Black brothers because they’re already fighting against a system that further criminalizes them.”

The importance of centering and supporting Black women, LGBTQ+ survivors, undocumented immigrants, and those with disabilities shines through in her work to teach college students their rights under Title IX. “Our understanding of sexual violence and survivorship needs to be intersectional, expansive, and continue to evolve,” she wrote for Forbes.

Specifically, she emphasizes connecting marginalized survivors with organizations that intentionally focus on their community. In addition to partnering with universities – including HBCUs— Haynes has collaborated with the Biden Foundation, ItsOnUs, and Know Your IX.

VIII. The Full Circle Legacies: Ginny Gilder and Ann Meyers Drysdale

While women’s pro sports don’t fall under the protection of Title IX, some of the law’s first beneficiaries – including Ginny Gilder and Ann Meyers Drysdale – have ensured that the intentionality of the legislation continues when athletes graduate from college.

Just two years after Title IX was signed into law, Meyers was among the first women to receive an athletic scholarship. At UCLA, the California native was a four-time All-American basketball player. She also knows the legislation still hasn’t lived up to its full potential.

“Fifty years later after Title IX, we know that a lot of schools – the majority of schools – are not in compliance with Title IX,” Meyers Drysdale said on the new NBC Sports podcast Hardwood Herstory. “But it’s become the calling card of women’s sports.”

A year after graduating from UCLA, she became the first (and still only) woman to sign an NBA contract. She didn’t make the team – but her time in professional basketball was just getting started. She was the first woman to work an NBA broadcast for one of the three major networks and when the WNBA launched in 1997, NBC approached Meyers Drysdale to serve as their main analyst. She worked as a broadcaster for a decade, before joining the Phoenix Mercury as a General Manager and leading the franchise two its first two WNBA championships. Today Meyers Drysdale serves as a VP for the Mercury and their NBA counterpart the Suns.

Four years after Title IX’s passage, Ginny Gilder and her Yale rowing teammates were still afterthoughts. Most glaring: while the men took hot showers after practice, the women’s boathouse didn’t accommodate showers, so they sat on the bus waiting for the men.

Yes, even in the dead of winter.

When enough was enough, 19 team members marched into the athletic director’s office, stripped out of their sweats to reveal their bodies naked except for “TITLE IX” handwritten in marker across their backs and chests, and read a statement with a now-memorialized first line: “These are the bodies that Yale is exploiting.”

The demonstration paid near-immediate dividends – and set a template of teamwork for Gilder to follow years later. In 2008, Gilder and business partners Dawn Trudeau and Lisa Brummel bought the Seattle Storm in order to keep the team in Seattle.

New Seattle Storm Owners Attend Press Conference
The Seattle Storm ownership group of Anne Levinson, Dawn Trudeau, Lisa Brummel, and Ginny Gilder is introduced on January 8, 2008 (Photo by Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Seattle Storm has won three WNBA championships under their leadership and revolutionized what community impact could mean when they became the first sports team to partner with Planned Parenthood.

“It’s probably not a tremendous coincidence that I’m now part of the ownership group of the Seattle Storm of the WNBA,” said Gilder in 2012. “After the [Title IX] protest I learned an important lesson: Don’t take no for an answer. Don’t let people tell you your dreams can’t come true.”

IX. The Young Activist: Rebekah Bruesehoff

As a 10-year-old in 2017, Rebekah Bruesehoff took to the New Jersey streets. With purple hair pulled back, slim jeans, a pink coat and matching shoes, she carried a sign: “I’m the SCARY TRANSGENDER person the MEDIA WARNED you about.”

In the years since, the legislation attacking trans kids – and trans girls in particular – has only become more vicious. In fact, in a hate-fueled turn of events, fifty years post-Title IX, nearly all legislation around girls’ and women’s sports focuses on exclusion – rather than inclusion.

Now 15 years old, Bruesehoff’s voice has only grown louder. She’s passionate about field hockey and knows that the laws banning trans girls from sport hurt trans girls and cis girls alike. That’s not a future she’s willing to accept, leading her to share her story as part of the Human Rights Campaign’s efforts to protect trans girls’ right to sport. She’s also testified in support of laws that require schools to include the accomplishments of LGBTQ+ people in the curriculum.

If Title IX’s greatest legacy has been its evolution to protect gender equity in all its forms, Bruesehoff, her family and friends are well poised for the fight.

It’s simple for Rebekah: “This is so important to me because I would believe that everyone deserves access to be part of their school community. And that means being in sports.”

There is much to celebrate as Title IX turns fifty – and many more than nine (or so) to thank for the progress made thus far.

There’s also more to fight for. There are still fewer girls playing sports today (50 years after Title IX) than there were boys playing sports when Title IX was passed. And though Title IX has changed the game for countless girls across the country, the progress has been unequal: girls of color still have just one-third the number of sports opportunities as white boys.

The gift of this anniversary then is to simultaneously celebrate and commit to a brighter future. To advocate and act. To chart a path forward by looking back.

Risa Isard is a writer, consultant, and expert in the intersection of sports, gender, LBGTQ+ and social issues. She is a Research Fellow with the Laboratory for Inclusion and Diversity in Sport at the University of Massachusetts, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in the McCormack Department of Sport Management in the Isenberg School of Business. She has also written for espnW, Quartz, AdWeek, and Global Sport Matters. Follow her on Twitter @RisaLovesSports.

On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report. 

Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC offensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

Courtesy Diana Flores

Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC offensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

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Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator


When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC offensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

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“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

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“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

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