Skip to main content

How Title IX Changed Women's Sports Forever

Title IX is named after 1972 Education Amendments signed by President Nixon (it was a different time when Republicans supported women's rights as well environmental issues). The legislation pushed equality of opportunity for women in sports. Like its companion civil rights legislation, this law was not designed to support the status quo but to drive changes in behavior, expectations and resources spent on women.

The legislation zeroed in on a domain of exclusive male control. The domain matters because American society uses sports and sports metaphors to explain life and even itself. Daily conversation in the workplace and life were saturated with references to teams, scores and competitive metaphors that glorified the image of sports as models of achievement.

The point of the game here is that sports language and play covertly and overtly excluded women. American society implicitly assumed women could not play or achieve excellence in this domain and by implication many others. "Throwing like a girl" signified the language of disenfranchisement.

Sports, like so many areas of structural discrimination, created a self fulfilling justification. Sports illuminates and illustrates virtues and strengths needed to achieve in the world. Women can't do well at sports and women aren't interested in sports, therefore women  choose to disqualify themselves and are disqualified from demonstrating these virtues. Because women can't do it and don't care about doing it, we don't need to let them do it; we can deny them opportunities to play sports. Since so few have opportunities and so few achieve, the young women have no models to aspire to unless they want to be the '"female" Michael Jordan or "female" Alex Rodriquez (can't believe I said that!)  etc.

The inertia of the sports world, like of society at large, held back the development of women's sports. This was compounded not just by lack of opportunity but lack of strong fan bases (of course no fan base exists for any sport until you get to college or Olympics, and in college only a profitable fan base exists for basketball and football--now thousands show up for the NCAA volleyball and basketball championships). In addition college administrators, high school coaches, college coaches and a solid phalanx of southern members of congress fought it every bureaucratic inch of the way.

Title IX was forcing legislation. The law did not mean to promote the status quo but change it. It created a decision forcing function for colleges and high schools that received federal aid. Provide strong and fair opportunity or face loss of funding.

The crux of the forcing legislation lay in the criteria to prove good faith effort. The most obvious approach would be to demand that schools provide opportunities proportionate with the percentage of women at the school. This aim is the nightmare of every social conservative but also a huge resource challenge to athletic administrators and schools. It posed a serious challenge at so many levels even when only 40 percent of undergraduate populations were female. Now with the not uncommon reality of 60 percent female undergraduate populations, the pure percentage criteria is a nightmare.

One way to escape the collision of proportionality with resources was to create a fudge factor. This turned out to be the percentage of interest criteria. This required colleges not to achieve real proportionality but to poll women on the campus and see what percentage wanted to participate in intercollegiate sports, then try to achieve proportionality to that number. The criteria was a godsend to schools,  especially in the south, where the female polling guranteed more who wanted to be hostesses or cheerleaders; it took alot of pressure off. The Bush administration, as one would expect given its southern base, did everything it could to slow down the progress, most importantly aggressively supporting  the survey approach and effectively ending federal pressure on schools.

The Obama administration decision to eliminae the escape valve of the survey is the right thing to do. The issue here is not the accuracy of the survey or sampling, but rather the tendency of surveys to reflect existing views and protect college administration's from wider changes in sports. It permitted programs to get away with disproportionality while claiming to provide parity. The Obama decision restores the dynamic and forcing because this is about cultural change and respecting and enabling the role of women in society and in sport.

After generations of amazing success and growth and hundreds of thousands of young women who have benefited from participation in sport, you would assume this would be the norm. Today 210,000 women play as NCAA student athletes representing 45% of all intercollegiate athletes. What Bush reminded us is that the battles around the role and stature of women never ends. A whole reactive undertow exists ready to erode or wash away progress whenever given a chance, even if it involves seemingly obscure bureaucratic requirements about proportionality.

 Obama did the right thing. It is a step forward for women in sports, for the moment.


Popular Video