A Sporting Chance: Title IX and the seismic shift in women's sports
Imagine: if only the boys at your school could play on the football, track, wrestling, basketball and baseball teams, and the girls had...synchronized swimming. Or imagine a coach saying, “There’s a place for women’s athletics: after 7 p.m. and before 6 a.m.” Or a judge remarking, as he legally barred girls from competing on a boys’ high school cross-country team even though there was no girls’ team: “Athletic competition builds character in our boys. We do not need that kind of character in our girls.” Imagine that people believed women runners would be unable to bear children, would grow a mustache or wanted to be men.
Actually, you do not have to imagine any of this. These are true examples from the world before 1972. Marj Snyder, chief program officer of the Women’s Sports Foun-dation, remembers those days. She also remembers two boys being admitted to a college that had rejected her, even though her test scores and grades were better. But they had team experience, an option that did not exist for her. As Dolly Brumfield White, who played in the 1940s All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, recalls: “We weren’t allowed in the weight room—it was as bad as going to a pool hall.”
Then as now, sports were a microcosm of society. The lack of teams, facilities and encouragement went hand in hand with narrower opportunities in other areas; women became teachers and nurses, not principals and doctors. Without coaches or practice times and subject to being teased or hassled when they tried or even wanted to play sports, is it any wonder that so many girls did not see themselves as strong, vigorous, talented, capable beings?
Then Things Changed
What jumpstarted a seismic shift in American life was a law Congress passed in 1972 known as Title IX. Its text read: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” In essence, Title IX prohibits any and every institution that receives government money from practicing gender discrimination. That was and is nearly all of them.
The statistics illustrate an important part of the transformation since the law went into effect. In 1971, fewer than 300,000 high school girls participated in athletics. Today that number is close to three million, with almost half of all female high school students on a team. In 1972 about 16,000 young women participated in college athletics, a number that has grown to over 180,000. The number of women’s teams per campus has increased from an average of 2.5 before 1972 to 8.5 in 2006.
“Title IX built a base for sports that led to the 1999 World Cup and women’s professional basketball—so many things that go beyond the traditional women’s sports of figure skating, tennis and golf,” notes Snyder of the Women’s Sports Foundation. “Once schools realized they had to open their doors to women and let them onto the playing fields, they added sports like softball, track, field hockey and soccer, sports with high participation numbers.” The Summer Olympics have also witnessed a sharp increase in the number of women athletes that began two decades ago. In 1972, 1,058 (or 16 percent) of 7,123 athletes in total were women. In the 2008 games in China, that number rose to 4,746 (or 42 percent) of the total of 11,196 athletes.
Numbers are only part of the story, of course. Consider the benefits to the athletes. “We’ve always said sports are opportunities for boys and men to benefit from fun, to build character and confidence, to become physically fit and healthy. And to network—your teammates are your future colleagues,” says Snyder. “Lots of evidence demonstrates that girls also benefit. Girls who participate in sports have less osteoporosis, less obesity and better heart health. Psychologically, they have a better body image, higher self-confidence and self-esteem, and they do better in business. They are less likely to get pregnant, more likely to delay sexual activity till later, more likely to have fewer sexual partners and less likely to use drugs and smoke.” Snyder concludes: “If you don’t play on a team, where do you learn risk-taking in a safe environment? Now girls have access to that training ground.”
An analysis from the Department of Education backs this up. Its 1997 report Title IX: 25 Years of Progress noted that “the critical values learned from sports participation—including teamwork, standards, leadership, discipline, self-sacrifice and pride in accomplishment—are being brought to the workplace as women enter employment in greater numbers, and at higher levels than ever before. For example, 80 percent of female managers of Fortune 500 companies have a sports background.”
Note too that Title IX was not meant to apply exclusively to sports but was also intended to combat quotas that kept women out of law, medical and engineering programs. It has worked there too. Before Title IX, more than a quarter of men but less than a fifth of women completed college; that gap has disappeared. Five times as many women receive medical degrees now as 35 years ago, six times as many earn law degrees and almost twice as many are awarded doctoral degrees.
By Title IX’s 25th anniversary in 1997, Richard W. Riley, the U.S. Secretary of Education, could say that “America is a more equal, more educated and more prosperous nation because of the far-reaching effects of this legislation.... What strikes me the most about the progress that has been achieved since Title IX was passed in 1972 is that there has been a sea change in our expectations of what women can achieve. More important, women have shown skeptics again and again that females are fully capable of being involved as successful and active participants in every realm of American life.”
Many coaches are well aware of this. Bruce Rasmussen graduated from college in 1971 and began teaching in a small town in southern Iowa. “I was low on the totem pole, so when the women’s coach left, I took that on,” he recalls. “What I found was that the girls were much more receptive to coaching. The boys thought they knew it before they knew it, but the girls were appreciative of any commitment and attention. It was ‘we get to practice’ versus ‘we have to practice.’ It was an eye-opener.” Now director of athletics at Creighton University in Omaha, Rasmussen says: “I see our female athletes have embraced and grown and learned from values such as attention to detail, playing a role on a team and discipline just as much as males, if not more. For years people believed in the value of athletics for what men can achieve. If we believe athletics has a value beyond wins and losses, then that value is there for female athletes as much as male. There are benefits at home, on the job—everywhere.”
Jean Hastings Ardell, author of Breaking Into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime, puts it this way: “Title IX blew apart the old limitations for half the population of this country.”
Enforcement and Challenges
Not surprisingly, implementing such sweeping legislation caused plenty of confusion, foot-dragging and challenges. Courts have upheld Title IX at every turn, in cases of school athletics and also in regard to sexual harassment, standardized tests, pregnant students and much more. In 1997 a Supreme Court ruling sent a clear message that just offering women’s sports was not enough. Educational institutions had to provide facilities, equipment, practice and game times, as well as encouragement.
“I don’t think the men who wrote the law envisioned that this is how it would turn out,” Snyder says. One of the three ways the law is enforced is by proportionality—you must demonstrate that sports programs are offered to men and women in percentages equivalent to their enrollment. “The men probably thought they would always have a big advantage, because in 1972 only 35 percent of college undergrads were women. Today, it’s 57 percent.” (Compliance is also gauged by whether opportunities for women are increasing and whether the school satisfies the athletic interests and abilities of its female students. Schools need to meet only one of the three criteria.)
Despite what some critics claim, Title IX does not require any college to eliminate men’s teams in order to be compliant. Adding women’s opportunities is not supposed to be done by taking them away from men, but by expanding them for everybody. In fact, last year more college participation opportunities were added for men than for women. Schools drop or add sports for many reasons, not only because of Title IX. Money is a key factor. The cost of insurance, equipment, facilities or team travel may determine what can be offered.
Rasmussen came to Creighton as the women’s basketball coach in 1980. “We had a team but there were no scholarships, no budget, no assistance,” he recalls. “Now there’s a full complement of coaches, we’re fully funded the same as the men, we play a national schedule, and we get just as much priority in workout times.” Creighton is currently building a $40 million facility for women’s basketball and volleyball.
Before Title IX, only a handful of women got athletic scholarships. Donna de Varona may have won two gold medals in the 1964 Olympics, but that did not mean she could garner a college swimming scholarship. Today, college women receive about 42 percent of college athletic scholarship dollars. Much less is spent on women’s operating expenses, recruiting costs and head coaching salaries, according to the 2000-01 Gender Equality Study. Full equality still lies ahead.
Tim Wiles, director of research for the Baseball Hall of Fame, served on the Title IX Compliance Committee at the University of Northern Iowa when he was librarian there in 1994. When the committee circulated a draft report, he says he was visited by one assistant athletic director who “tried to pressure us to write something different. This was 22 years after IX passed, and they still didn’t know what to do with it. They still were trying to keep the status quo.”
“I was born in 1964,” Wiles added. “There were girls in Little League and Biddy Basketball but there was no prohibition against denigrating the skills or participation of females in sports. It was very socially acceptable to consider women participants second-class. It was expected that if you were a boy you’d get better times and fields. I’m sorry to say I was one of those kids who had the general idea that sports were for boys and ‘you girls should go away and do your own thing.’ No one would go to a girls’ game in high school.”
How that has changed! One anecdote from Marj Snyder illustrates the shift in attitude. “When my sister was coaching her older daughter in basketball, she took both girls to high school basketball games and taped women’s basketball. One day her five-year-old daughter asked, ‘Do boys play basketball too?’”
“If there’s something you want to do, you should have the opportunity. Thank goodness, we mostly have the opportunities today. That’s what Title IX did: It put pressure on schools to offer facilities and opportunities for girls,” concludes Dolly White, who played, then taught and coached from the 1940s through the 1990s. “How do you know what you can do until you try?”
What About Women’s Schools?
Although single-sex schools are not bound by the provisions of Title IX, they have been greatly affected. “Title IX was and is a great, great piece of legislation to protect women’s rights,” says Patricia McGuire, who is in her 20th year as president of Trinity College, a women’s school in Washington, D.C. But, she adds, Title IX is “one of the forces that contributed to decline in enrollment in women’s colleges.” Before Title IX, only women’s colleges had gyms readily available to women. Title IX equalized resources, “but because we were a single-sex college, we didn’t have to equalize our facilities.”
Eventually, McGuire says, “We saw it was hurting us—it was an excuse not to keep up. A college that says it stands for women’s rights and advancements can’t take a pass. We have to do the same as big universities to give equal opportunities.” In Trinity’s case, that meant building its Center for Women and Girls in Sports, which opened in 2002—the first new building on campus in 40 years.
“Whether we like it or not, sports in higher education drives perceptions of institutional liveliness and attractiveness,” McGuire adds. “Being able to offer high-class sports has turned our enrollment around. Women expect to have that and Title IX created that expectation.”