Donna de Varona won two Olympic gold medals in 1964. Afterward, she could not obtain a college swimming scholarship - there weren't any for women.

There are such scholarships now, due to Title IX, which Congress passed 40 years ago today.

Sports always have had a huge role in American social progress. At the highest level, sports inevitably are about ability superseding any other factor in the quest to win - including race, socioeconomic roots and business connections.

Perhaps the best-known example is the ascent of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. That not only altered baseball but accelerated momentum toward greater racial equality.

In terms of the broadest impact, the trophy might belong to Title IX, which requires equal access by both sexes to all aspects of education.

But its best-known impact has been in sports.

In 1970, one in 27 girls played a high school sport. In 2010, the number was one in three. Title IX is directly responsible for the rise of generations of great female athletes. The U.S. women's soccer and ice hockey teams, for example, are ranked first in the world.

That's stunning by itself but the impact is far broader. Title IX did nothing less than restore the notion of sports as an element of education, the mind-and-body philosophy.

Critics of Title IX long have lamented that its progress for women has come at the expense of male athletes, in that colleges sometimes have canceled male sports to achieve the balance mandated by Title IX. But it is about equal access to education. Tens of thousands of women have had access to education through athletic scholarships since Title IX, just like tens of thousands of men.

Some argue that Title IX no longer is necessary because of its own success - women no longer are a minority on most college campuses.

But the law applies to all levels. With school budgets being squeezed, what would go first without Title IX - football or field hockey?

And its reach is even broader. Beyond sports, Title IX mandated gender equality in facilities, admissions, faculty policies and so on.

Title IX's success might indeed require it to be tweaked over its next 40 years, but to further remove barriers rather than rebuild them.