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the triumphs and limitations of Title IX in women’s sports


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When Title IX was signed into law by President Richard Nixon forty years ago, gender equality in sports wasn’t on the forefront of legislator’s minds. Rather, the landmark legislation, which bans sex discrimination in any educational program receiving federal funding, was a response to social realities that were holding women back at the time.

The legislation was designed to address ten areas of gender inequality in education, including access to higher education, career education, and opening up opportunities for women in math and science. Bernice Sandler, who helped draft the legislation in the early ’70s, reportedly told ESPN, ‘The only thought I gave to sports when the bill was passed was, “Oh, maybe now when a school holds its field day, there will be more activities for the girls.”’ In fact, Mother Jones reports ‘aside from one Senator’s crack about coed football…sports weren’t mentioned at all.’

But forty years later, despite the important impact it’s had in other areas of education, such as math and science education and protections against sexual harassment, Title IX’s most significant legacy is its promotion of female athletics.

Statistics from the National Women’s Law Center show the incredible impact that Title IX legislation has had over the past forty years. During the 1971-1972 school year – the year before the law was enacted –fewer than 300,000 girls participated in high school sports. Fast forward forty years later and female participation in sports had increased tenfold. Today, over 3.2 million girls compete in high school athletics.

Despite Title IX’s obvious impact on women’s participation in athletics, progress towards gender equity in sports has been a bumpy ride, and while some things have changed, there are a number of things that haven’t.

Unequal access to athletic opportunities

While Title IX guarantees that athletics are no longer a boy’s’ club, women are still given 60,000 fewer participation opportunities in college athletics than their male counterparts and, proportionally speaking, schools spend less money on female athletes.

In 2010, the NCAA put out a Gender Equity Report, which indicated that despite making up 53 percent of the student body, fewer than 46 percent of the student athletes were women. Additionally, women’s teams received a mere 41.4 percent of the money for head coach salaries, 36 percent of recruiting money, and 39.6 percent of athletic expenses overall.

Rise in women’s participation in athletics does not correspond with lack of coaching opportunities for women

One would surmise that with such a drastic increase in women’s participation in sports, there would be a corresponding rise in women coaches. Surprisingly enough, the opposite has occurred. In 1972, 90 percent of women’s teams were coached by women. Today, that number has dropped to 43 percent. And women coaching men’s teams has stayed nearly the same, hovering around 3 percent.

Women’s athletics are still underrepresented in the media

Despite the overwhelming number of girls competing in athletic programs, women are unlikely to see their role models in the media. Analysing 25 years of sports media coverage, The University of Southern California discovered that less than 1 percent of network television coverage included women’s athletics, and ESPN’s SportsCenter featured women roughly 2 percent of the time. When speaking about this discrepancy, Michael Messner, one of three researchers on the project noted, ‘What’s puzzling to us is the increased interest and participation in women’s sports has not at all been reflected in the news and highlights shows.’

Not all women are given access to sports equally

In 2008, a national survey of 3rd-12th grade girls by the Women’s Sports Foundation found that over 75 percent of white girls play sports. For Black and Hispanic girls, this number decreases to less than two thirds. For Asian girls, the number decreases further at 50 percent participation.

Unfortunately, disparities in youth participation continue at the collegiate level, where there is currently a severe diversity gap in American collegiate sports. Black women are underrepresented in all major sports except for basketball and track, and Hispanic women make up a mere 4 percent of women athletes in the NCAA.

While Title IX legislation has been monumental in increasing women’s and girls’ participation in sports, white women have benefited the most, both as athletes and administrators, while race remains a debilitating limitation. As Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, an Olympic gold medalist, explained to the New York Times, ‘[I]n the grand scheme o f things, Caucasian girls have benefited disproportionately well, especially suburban girls and wealthy Caucasian girls.’

It’s clear that Title IX has had a dramatic impact on ensuring that women are able to access and participate in sports – the statistics alone show that. However, Title IX is still in its infancy, despite being nearly 40 years old, and ought be protected, celebrated, and modified to ensure that imbalances in race and class are considered as well.

One thought on “the triumphs and limitations of Title IX in women’s sports

  1. I appreciated reading this article. most people ncludng athletes, parents, coaches and administrators don’t really know about Title IX. For merchants 40 years we’ve been receiving calls from parents and athletes describing discriminatory behavior at schools and asking if they were in violation of Title IX.

    Most people don’t know their rights under this precious law. Most people don’t know there are 10 areas covered by Title IX. Most people don’t know that when the law was passed schools were mandated to have Title IX Coordnators herd to understand each aspect of the law and provide schools and athletes and students proper guidance toad dire Title IX compliance.

    More wrk needs to be done to eliminate the violations you mention plus the continuing inequities that are occurring daily across the country.

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