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From the Tennis Court to the Supreme Court: How Justice Ginsburg’s Legacy Extends into the Sports Realm

2016 portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Photo Source: Camilo Schaser-Hughes, 614px-Ruth_Bader_Ginsburg_2016_portrait, Flickr (May 31, 2019) (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

By: Mary Kate Raczka*                                             Posted: 11/12/2020

Despite her small stature, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put up a strong fight.[1]  Perhaps most known for her contributions to gender equality and strongly worded dissents, Justice Ginsburg’s impact extends into the realm of sports.[2]   Ginsburg herself was an athlete and her workouts can be found in her trainer’s book “The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong . . . and You Can Too!"[3]

Before the passage of Title IX which prohibited sex-based discrimination in schools receiving federal funding, and thus changing the way females are able to participate in school sports, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was fighting for women athletes.[4]  In 1972, a young woman named Abbe Seldin moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, where she wanted to play tennis for her school’s team.[5]  At the time, Teaneck High School had no tennis team for women and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (“NJSIAA”) prohibited female athletes from participating with male athletes in non-contact sports.[6]  Seldin, a nationally ranked tennis player, was determined to gain competitive experience before heading off to college.[7]  Hoping to find her spot on the tennis court, Seldin and her mother contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, where Rutgers Law professors Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Annamay Sheppard were volunteering at the time.[8]

Ginsburg and Sheppard quickly filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey against various Teaneck officials, state agencies, Teaneck’s Men’s Tennis coach, and the head of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA), asserting that the rules prohibiting Seldin from playing tennis alongside men violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[9]  During trial, District Court Judge Leonard I. Garth suggested that the dispute be settled in a different court—the tennis court.[10]  Judge Garth liked the idea of watching Seldin play several of the male athletes on the team to determine if Seldin was good enough to join.[11]  Eager to resolve the case, Judge Garth, a tennis player himself, said “I’ll take her on myself if I have to.”[12]  

However, mid-trial, the NJSIAA altered its rules to allow female athletes to play several sports, including tennis.[13]  Seldin subsequently joined the Men’s Tennis team, where she endured extreme mistreatment by her coach and fellow teammates.[14]  While participating in a drill that required players to crawl up stairs on their hands while a teammate held their legs up, a male teammate abruptly dropped Seldin, causing her to fall onto her chest and injure herself.[15]  To escape the disrespect and mistreatment, Seldin quit before even playing a match.[16]  While Seldin’s personal victory in the courtroom was ephemeral, the victory allowed female athletes across the state to participate on some men’s sports teams for the very first time.[17]  Seldin, who went on to play tennis for Syracuse University and later professionally, praised Ginsburg, who taught her to “be tougher” and to ”stick up for myself for what is right.”[18]  In 1972, months after Ginsburg persuaded the NJSIAA to change their rules, Congress passed Title IX, which some have described as “[t]he legal springboard for women to gain an equal footing in sports in high schools and colleges . . . .”[19]

The same year she opened new doors for female athletes in the State of New Jersey, Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union.[20]  Ginsburg went on to serve as general counsel for the ACLU until 1980, when President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.[21] Throughout her time with the ACLU, Ginsburg took on a plethora of sex discrimination cases—some even argued before the Supreme Court—and helped pave the way towards gender equality.[22]

Later, while sitting on the bench of the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg dissented in Ledbetter v Goodyear Tire,[23] where a female claimant filed an employment discrimination case under Title VII against her former employer after being paid significantly less than her male counterparts.[24]  While the majority of the Court concluded that Ms. Ledbetter’s claim was time-barred, Justice Ginsburg was not convinced.[25]  Her fierce dissent recognized problems with asserting unequal pay discrimination claims under Title VII, and her dissent ultimately opened the door to allow more women to bring unequal pay claims.[26]

In 2009, Congress passing the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which stated that claimant has 180 days after each discriminatory paycheck to file a claim.[27]  Armed with Justice Ginsburg’s legacy, female athletes today are fighting for equal pay on their own turf.[28]  The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and Ice Hockey Team, Venus and Serena Williams, and Big Wave Surfers have all spoken out about equal pay in sports.[29] Like Justice Ginsburg, these athletes recognize the harm caused by unequal pay on the basis of sex and are willing to fight for it.[30]

Justice Ginsburg’s contributions to gender equality have touched athletes across the globe.[31]  Following Justice Ginsburg’s passing on September 18, 2020, players for Glasgow City, a women’s soccer team in Scotland, will sport Justice Ginsburg’s name on the left sleeves of their jerseys to honor her.[32]  It is clear that Justice Ginsburg’s legacy has reached, and will continue to reach, far beyond the courtroom.[33]

*Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2022, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.


[1] See generally Sarah Spain, Thank You, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for Inspiring Quests for Equality in Sports, ESPN (Sept. 25, 2020), (providing details on Ginsburg’s life and legacy).

[2] For further discussion of Justice Ginsburg’s contributions in women’s sports, see infra notes 4-22 and accompanying text.

[3] See Spain, supra note 1 (describing how Ginsburg’s twice-weekly workouts led her trainer to write a book).

[4] See generally Mike Kelly, How Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped a high school girl win a spot on Teaneck’s boys tennis team, NORTHJERSEY.COM, (Sept. 23, 2020), (noting Title IX was months from being passed and years from being implemented when Ginsburg filed Seldin’s federal suit alleging equal protection violation).

[5] See Women’s Rights in New Jersey, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION NEW JERSEY, (last visited Oct. 8, 2020) (describing Abbe Seldin hoped to play for high school tennis team when she moved to Teaneck, New Jersey).

[6] See id. (describing how Teaneck’s lack of any women’s tennis team spurred Seldin’s decision to try out for men’s tennis); see also Kelly, supra note 4 (noting Seldin wanted to try out for men’s varsity tennis team).

[7] See Kelly, supra note 4 (noting Seldin’s national ranking in tennis by fifteen years old spurred her aspirations toto play competitive tennis before college); see also Women’s Rights in New Jersey, supra note 5 (indicating Eastern Lawn Tennis Association ranked Seldin twenty-second  among fifteen and sixteen year old female tennis players).

[8] See Kelly, supra note 4 (describing how Seldin contacted ACLU and professors Ginsburg and Sheppard took on her case).

[9] See Andrew Keh, A Girl Wanted to Try Out for Boys’ Tennis. Ginsburg Helped Make It Happen., N.Y. TIMES (Sept. 23, 2020), (“Ginsburg . . . and her colleague Annamay Sheppard quickly led the family to file a lawsuit in [the] United Stated District Court [for the District of New Jersey] in Newark, charging that the rules barring girls from competing alongside boys violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.”). Ginsburg took a broad approach with the suit, naming various parties as defendants. See id. (including head of NJSIAA, Teaneck school officials, state agencies, and Teaneck’s tennis coach). 

[10] See Kelly, supra note 4 (“Finally, U.S. District Judge Leonard I. Garth said he wanted to settle the dispute in a different venue: on the tennis court.”).

[11] See id. (describing how Judge Garth suggested observing Seldin play several boys on Teaneck’s team to determine if she was a good enough player).

[12] See id. (quoting Judge Garth) . 

[13] See Women’s Rights in New Jersey, supra note 5 (reporting during trial, NJSIAA altered its rules permitting girls to participate in several sports including tennis).

[14] See Keh, supra note 9 (describing Seldin’s teammates and coach taunting and mistreatment).

[15] See id (describing incident where teammate dropped Seldin during a drill).

[16] See id. (highlighting how Seldin never played a match); see also Women’s Rights in New Jersey, supra note 5 (noting Seldin quit Teaneck’s tennis team to escape mistreatment).

[17] See Keh, supra note 9 (“But though the result immediately opened new doors for young female athletes across the state, the payoff for Seldin herself was short-lived.”).

[18] See Kelly, supra note 4 (quoting Seldin on lessons she learned from Ginsburg); see Keh, supra note 9 (noting Seldin became first woman to receive athletic scholarship at Syracuse University).

[19] See Kelly, supra note 4 (describing Title IX’s impact).

[20] See generally Spain, supra note 1 (noting Ginsburg co-founded Women’s Rights Project of ACLU in 1972).

[21] See Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1933-2020, SUPREME COURT HISTORICAL SOCIETY (last visited Oct. 7, 2020) (noting Ginsburg served as general counsel for ACLU until being appointed to federal bench ).

[22] See generally Tribute: The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and WRP Staff, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION, (last visited Oct. 8, 2020) (detailing several sex discrimination cases Ginsburg worked on while at ACLU).

[23] 550 U.S. 618 (2007).

[24] See id. (detailing facts of Ledbetter’s claim).

[25] See generally id. at 643-60 (showing Justice Ginsburg was not convinced by majority opinion).

[26] See generally id. at 643-60 (explaining why female claimants bringing unequal pay claims are harmed by each unequal paycheck).  For further discussion on how Ginsburg’s dissent allowed more claims, see infra note 27.

[27] See generally Marty Steinberg, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Biggest Cases: Equal Pay, Bush v. Gore, and Insider Trading, CNBC (Sept. 18, 2020), (explaining how Lilly Ledbetter Act allows claimants additional time to assert claims).

[28] See generally The Fight for Equal Pay in Women’s Sports, WOMEN’S SPORTS FOUNDATION (April 2, 2019), (explaining how female athletes continue to speak out about unequal pay).

[29] See generally id. (listing athletes who have taken stance in fight for equal pay in sports).

[30] See generally id. (describing how various professional female athletes are willing to “push” and “fight” for equal pay).

[31] For further discussion on how Ginsburg’s impact has stretched across the globe, see infra note 32 and accompanying text.

[32] See Spain, supra note 1 (describing Glasgow City’s plan to honor Ginsburg this 2020 season).

[33] For further discussion of how Ginsburg’s legacy has extended beyond the courtroom, see supra notes 1-32 and accompanying text.