Has Title IX created equity for women in sports?

When Congress passed Title IX in 1972, it marked a watershed moment for American education. The law demanded equality in a number of areas besides athletics, including access to higher education, the teaching of math and science and standardized testing.

Still, the legislation, renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act in 2002, in honor of its principal author, Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii, is best known for its impact on athletics — and the controversy it has sparked over whether the law has worked to even the playing field for women and girls in sports.

“Has Title IX worked? My heavens, yes!” says Chris Plonsky, women's athletic director at the University of Texas, among the nation's biggest college-sports programs. “Can things still get better for opportunity and equality? Of course. But I think I'm sitting here, happy, as a women's athletic director at a major university because of Title IX.”

The view of Title IX isn't uniformly positive, though. “It was passed in 1972 and it's now 2011,” says Grant, the former University of Iowa women's athletic director. “That's a long, long time to have waited for equal opportunity. I never dreamed in 1972 that I would be talking with you in 2011 and still talking about the need to achieve equal opportunity.” She adds, “We've been successful — to a degree.”

The number of females taking part in high-school and college sports is higher than ever. Nearly 3.2 million girls participated in high-school sports in 2009-10, compared with only 295,000 in 1972, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). At the college level, growth has been similarly strong. Just 16,000 women took part in college sports in 1967, but some 180,000 are involved today. Athletic scholarships for female athletes were unheard of prior to Title IX; today they are commonplace. [Footnote 13]

Experts say the growth in women's sports moved in tandem with other social forces, including the rise of the women's rights movement, changes in corporate marketing strategies and civil-rights legislation.

“There is no way to know the percentage of change caused solely by Title IX. Society had to mature a bit in the 1950s before it became ready to see discrimination against women as something that needed a remedy,” says Brooklyn College's Carpenter, who adds that cultural norms, business forces and legislation “typically move together.”

The test developed by the government to measure Title IX compliance requires schools to meet any of three requirements: Opportunities for males and females must be “substantially proportionate” to enrollment numbers, schools must show a history of “program expansion” for the under-represented sex and they have to show they are “fully and effectively” accommodating the interests and abilities of the under-represented sex. [Footnote 14]

The National Women's Law Center's Chaudhry argues that even though colleges are enrolling more and more women, most institutions make no attempt to make athletic opportunities “substantially proportionate” with those of men. “Most schools are not even close,” she says. “Women and girls are still not receiving equal opportunities. At the high-school level, the number of girls playing sports is even today not at the level that boys were at in 1971.”

But some argue that the biggest problem isn't compliance with Title IX, but Title IX itself. With females now representing more than half of all college students, earning better grades than boys and participating in sports in such high levels that orthopedists have reported an epidemic of girls' and women's sports injuries, ESPN.com sports commentator Gregg Easterbrook says that Title IX is outdated.

“Title IX slogs on,” he wrote, “generating increasingly incongruous legal intrusions into minor matters as well as creating perverse results, such as forcing colleges to shut down men's athletic teams.” [Footnote 15]

Easterbrook was referring to a common complaint among Title IX's detractors, who say that in an effort either to bring the number of male and female athletes into closer alignment or free up funds for new women's teams, many schools end up cutting deserving men's sports. In other words, critics charge, a law intended to prevent gender-based discrimination is actually making the problem worse.

“There's a disconnect between what was written in the statutes and how we use it today,” says Allison Kasic, a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative research and educational group in Washington. “It almost looks like two different laws.”

Leo Kocher, president of the College Sports Council, a national coalition of coaches, athletes, parents and fans who argue that Title IX is enforced in a way that harms male sports, says the law operates as a thinly disguised quota system. “This quota is not enforced elsewhere on college campuses,” he says. “Not in female-majority programs like dance, music, elementary-school teaching, nursing or even college enrollment.”

But Title IX's proponents vehemently dispute claims that schools' efforts to comply with the law have led to a reduction in the number of male athletes. “That is flat out not true,” says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director of advocacy at the Women's Sports Foundation, which advocates for gender equality in sports. “Both the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations cite record highs for both men and women,” says Hogshead-Makar, also a law professor at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville. [Footnote 16]

Nevertheless, Kocher says that he has been told by a female Division III swimming coach of non-scholarship men's and women's teams that she had to reduce the male squad to match the female numbers — and if a female swimmer quit she had to cut a male swimmer.

“In other words, the number of males allowed on the team will depend on how many females want to participate,” says Kocher. “But I think that our everyday experience says that more males than females want to do sports, and more females than males want to participate in dance. It would be a horrible injustice to mandate that in dance you have equal numbers of males and females. It would be an injustice if women, who are 57 percent of college students, were mandated to be reduced to 50 percent of college students. It would be an injustice if they were reduced to a 50 percent share of the students in nursing schools and music and theater.”

But Hogshead-Makar thinks such comparisons miss the point. “Sports is the only part of our society that is sex segregated,” she says. “So in the math department, the administrators make entrance gender-blind. But in a sports program you can't do that — you have to create out of whole cloth another sports department. That's why there's a lot of misunderstanding around Title IX. People don't have any other frame of reference to think about a sex-segregated part of education.”

The Issues:

* Has Title IX created equity for women in sports?
* Do women's professional sports leagues have a future?
* Will women ever hold executive positions in sports in more significant numbers?

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[13] Lauren Fellmeth, “High School Sports Participation Tops 7.6 Million, Sets Record,” National Federation of State High School Associations, www.nfhs.org/content.aspx?id=4208&terms=sports+participation; and “More Hurdles to Clear: Women and Girls in Competitive Athletics,” United States Commission on Civil Rights, July 1980, www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED191940.pdf.

[14] Tanner, op. cit.

[15] Gregg Easterbrook, “No ‘Cheers’ for Latest Title IX Decision,” ESPN.com, July 27, 2010, sports.espn.go.com/espn/commentary/news/story?page=easterbrook/100727.

[16] Fellmeth, op. cit.; and “Participation in NCAA Sports Continues to Climb,” National Collegiate Athletic Association, April 20, 2010, www.ncaa.org/wps/wcm/connect/ncaa/ncaa/ncaa+news/ncaa+news+online/2010/association-wide/participation+in+ncaa+sports+continues+to+climb_04_20_10_ncaa_news.