When Title IX passed in 1972, it revolutionized young women's participation in sports. While 1 in 27 girls participated in high school sports back then, according to Mother Jones, today about 2 in 5 do, according to the Women's Sports Foundation.
The fact that women athletes were well-represented at ESPN's annual ESPY Awards on Wednesday signifies great progress, but women in the U.S. still face discrimination in the sports world at large. Female athletes still face a gender wage gap, for instance: The United States Women's National Soccer Team notoriously makes far less than their male counterparts, and there was a cumulative $15 million difference between what male and female head coaches of the Final Four NCAA teams made this year. Despite the influence of Title IX, high schools across the United States provide 1.3 million fewer chances for girls to play sports and women still have more than 60,000 fewer participation opportunities at the collegiate level than do men.
All of these are reasons it's crucial young female athletes have strong role models. Luckily, they were in no short supply at the ESPYs, where female winners across categories used their acceptance speeches to inspire countless viewers with words of wisdom.
UFC champion Ronda Rousey could have basked in the glory of winning the best fighter award. But she decided to use the moment to remind the public of her co-nominee Floyd Mayweather's misogynistic history with domestic violence.
While accepting the award, Rousey said she wondered how Mayweather felt about getting "beat by a woman for once."
Later, however, while accepting the award for best female athlete, she hit a more earnest note. "I have to thank all the women here for being the change you want to see in the world," she said, adding that she also wanted to thank her mother for helping her achieve her incredible athletic accomplishments.
Former Notre Dame basketball player and Pat Tillman Award for Service recipient Danielle Green lost her arm while serving in Iraq. Her comrades' compassion — including retrieving her wedding rings the day of her injury — taught her an important lesson.
"The idea of people caring for one another is still at the core of my life," Green said, adding that she was constantly supported and encouraged in her recovery. "For any of this to be worthwhile, I had to let people help me. That's not always easy. But as I learned, its value can be immeasurable."
Ultimately, Green said, she hopes her story inspires others to ask themselves, "'What's my purpose? What's my passion? What do I want my legacy to be? How can I live as a full human being?'" she said. "We can all find ways to serve our community. We can all find ways to support the people around us. We can all find a purpose on this earth larger than ourselves."
In the spirit of sisterhood, Wambach spoke for her entire team when she thanked everybody for their continuous support. "We did this for America and the fans," she said. "I'm so happy that I have these girls to celebrate this with. It's been the best 10 days of our lives."
As she has done before, Jenner — inarguably the star of the evening — focused not on her own accomplishments while accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, but about the often dire reality of what it means to be trans in the United States.
"All across this country, there are young people coming to terms with being transgender," she said. "They're learning that they're different and they're trying to figure out how to deal with that. They're getting bullied, they're getting beaten up, they're getting murdered, they're committing suicide."
But Jenner wants to change all that — starting with high-profile moments like winning this award.
"If there's one thing I do know about my life, it's the power of the spotlight," she said. "With attention comes responsibility. As a group, as athletes, how you conduct your lives, what you say, what you do is absorbed and observed by millions of people. Especially young people."
Going forward, Jenner said she has one goal — to "promote a very simple idea: accepting people for who they are."
"My plea to you tonight is to join me in making this one of your issues as well," she said. "Trans people deserve something vital. They deserve your respect."