“This is March Madness — anything can happen,” says Cierra Burdick, a forward on the Tennessee women’s basketball team.

The University of Tennessee’s Lady Volunteers are ranked sixth as they enter the women’s National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, also called March Madness. But they face tough competition.

It’s natural for players such as Burdick to feel pressure. “The game is about 90 percent mental with me,” she said. “I constantly have to feed myself positive thoughts and give myself pep talks. I don’t let doubts or anxiety creep into my mind.”

While the men’s March Madness tournament games get more coverage on television, the women’s games are hard fought and raise the profiles of the top teams that get close to the championship game. Even President Obama is touting his favorite women’s teams — including Princeton University, where his niece Leslie Robinson plays.

Behind all the excitement of the women’s bracket in March Madness is a law from 1972 that made it possible. Title IX requires all schools that receive federal funding to give equal opportunities, in the areas of sports as well as academics, to males and to females.

Cierra Burdick is poised and ready for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. (Tennessee Athletics Photography)

The effect on women in sports has been strong. Before the Title IX law went into effect, 3.7 percent of secondary-school girls played sports. Six years after Title IX, 25 percent did. Today, 40 percent do.

For Burdick’s generation, it made all the difference. By the time she was old enough to play sports, Burdick had choices that weren’t available to her mother’s generation. “As a child, sports was all I knew,” she said. “I played sports year round, whether it was basketball, soccer, baseball, gymnastics or swimming. … I just loved competition.” In secondary school, her basketball team got more respect than the boys’ team, she said, because “we contended for a state championship every year.”

But allowing women such as Burdick to play on top-ranked college teams is far from the most important effect of Title IX, according to Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a civil-rights lawyer and former Olympian who advocates for women in sports. “Being physically healthy and physically competent translates into greater academic competence, professional competence, and competence in family roles,” she said.

Title IX is credited with increasing college enrollment by women (who now outnumber men on campuses) by 20 percent and with fueling a rise in employment among 25-to-34-year-old women. Furthermore, the positive effect of sports participation on women’s lives is long-lasting. A recent study finds that 96 percent of senior female executives played sports in school.

Burdick is a senior with good grades who plans to pursue a career in television. “Basketball will help me once I enter the workforce,” she said. “People may be smarter or more talented than I am, but I will never let them outwork me. That’s just the mindset I’ve developed through the years with this game.”

For now, Burdick said, she is focused on March Madness. “I’m excited to play the game I love at the elite level,” she said.