In 1982, Herb Dempsey watched cheerleaders in gowns escort members of Bethel High's 3--6 football team to the front row of the homecoming gala in Spanaway, Wash. Meanwhile, his daughter Jan's volleyball team, just back from finishing seventh in the state tournament, was only fleetingly recognized. Memories of that moment led Dempsey, upon his retirement a decade later, to decide how he would spend his golden years: advocating for gender equity in sports. He has since filed nearly 1,000 Title IX discrimination complaints; making a random check in 2007, he found that he had been involved in more than 62.5% of the actions brought before the Office for Civil Rights in the state of Washington during the last 10 years. "I was raised to believe that the equals sign has concrete meaning," says Dempsey, 75. "But at 99 percent of the high schools I've looked at, girls get the fuzzy end of the lollipop."
After Title IX's introduction, gadfly fathers—dadflys, if you will—led the revolution on the ground. "They understood how much sport gave children," says Donna Lopiano, the former CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation and an expert on Title IX. "Dad was the one who took his daughter into the backyard to play catch. Mom would have, but because she'd never had the chance to play, she didn't understand how much it meant. And when his daughter became a surrogate son through sports, Dad saw her go from porcelain doll to athlete. That totally shattered the stereotype."
The 1970s featured a number of unlikely Title IX champions. In Illinois, Paul Bucha, a retired Army colonel who had worked with Ike to plan the Normandy invasion, sued to help enable his daughter Sandra to become a champion swimmer. In Delaware former big league pitcher and future manager Dallas Green lent the name of his nine-year-old daughter, Kim, to one of the lawsuits that helped end Little League's boys-only policy. More recent battles, focused on girls' softball, have been led by Ron Randolph, a firefighter in Owasso, Okla.; Pat Egan, a contractor in Florence, Ky.; and Russell Johnson, a pipe fitter in Gadsden, Ala.
But Herb Dempsey remains the mother of all Title IX fathers. A current cause célèbre is Castle Rock, Wash., where girls' soccer games had to be shortened to 32 minutes from 80 minutes because of darkness, even though a football field with lights was available. "It's hard to believe how bad it still is," Dempsey says, "because people want to celebrate how good it has become."
Dempsey is prepared to keep fighting. "We're raised for combat," he says of dads. "But you know who's worse to deal with than fathers? Grandfathers!"
Gender equity obstructionists and backsliders, beware: Dempsey's granddaughter is only a few years away from high school.