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40 Years Later, Title IX Victories Shadow Work Ahead

by Chris Lombardi

June 23, 2012

The anniversary of Title IX, signed into law 40 years ago, has unleashed a flurry of celebrations of women's athletics, along with reports that highlight remaining barriers to be addressed.

Signed into law on June 23, 1972 by President Richard Nixon, Title IX is simple in its wording: "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."

The law applies across all academic programs, but its most high-profile application has been in sports programs in educational settings. In the years since its passage, the number of female college athletes has increased from 30,000 to 190,000 and the number of female high school athletes has grown tenfold, noted Martha Burk in "Who Owns Sports?" in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Female athletes have never been more visible. Title IX is what made the  Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), possible, its president, Laurel Richie, told the Christian Science Monitor. "The game that we put on the court every season gets better ... [as] a direct result of more and more girls participating in sports ... [and their] opportunities becoming richer and deeper."

The celebratory tone of the anniversary is evident.  ESPN has run weeks of anniversary coverage, culminating in a documentary, "Sporting Chances." The U.S. State Department is highlighting it through “Empowering Women and Girls Through Sports.” In June, the program sent WNBA stars to China, hosted Egyptian women soccer coaches at the Capitol and sponsored Caribbean athletes for a track and field exchange program in Eugene, Oregon.

But alongside commemorations, many organizations used the anniversary to study obstacles for girls and women that still need to be addressed. Reports and recommendations flowed from those most deeply engaged in the struggle, including the National Women’s Law Center, National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education and The Women’s Sports Foundation, founded by former tennis star Billie Jean King.

The consensus: we’re nowhere near the finish line.

The Women’s Sports Foundation, which has supported many women suing to enforce Title IX, zeroed in on one preventable issue: the number of girls who drop out of athletic programs before they ever really have a chance to compete. “By age 14, girls are dropping out of sports at two times the rate of boys,” its report noted. The foundation identified six factors contributing to this problem: lack of positive role models, safety and transportation issues, social stigma, financial burden of participation, decreased access and lesser-quality training in some programs themselves.

The National Women’s Law Center released a study giving numbers to disparities that remain, especially in the South; over half of Southern high schools reported a “participation gap” of more than 10 points between male and female students. The problem persists in collegiate programs, according to the center’s analysis of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) which showed that “for every dollar spent on women’s sports, about two and a half dollars are spent on men’s sports.”  It found that women and girls receive far fewer “athletic participation opportunities.... [and] receive roughly 28 percent of the total money spent on athletics, 31 percent of the recruiting dollars, and 42 percent of the athletic scholarship dollars.”  

The National Coalition, formed in 1975 to ensure accountability on Title IX, found additional disparities: “Less than two-thirds of African-American and Hispanic girls play sports, while more than three-quarters of Caucasian girls do. In addition to having fewer opportunities, girls often endure inferior treatment in areas such as equipment, facilities, coaching, and scheduling,” it reported in “Title IX at 40: Working to Ensure Gender Equity in Education.”  

Recommendations for how to close the gaps were also evident. The National Women's Law Center urges the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to conduct compliance reviews, offer stronger guidance to schools about what activities “count” as equal participation (for example should cheerleading count?) and mandate public disclosure of gender equity data in high school sports programs.

In the meantime, mentoring to keep girls on track was stressed by most commentators. The Women’s Sports Foundation sponsors “buddy” programs between current athletes and schools, while much more advanced promotion opportunities are offered by the State Department’s "SportsUnited," which since 2003 has brought nearly 1,000 athletes from over 60 countries to the U.S. to participate in sports visitor programs.

The approach of the summer Olympics in London has landed at a perfect time to draw attention to the 40th anniversary of Title IX and gender parity in sports.

“The Title IX decision was revolutionary,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week. “All of us who care about opportunities for girls and women view it as one of the most consequential pieces of legislation for women in our country’s history.”

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Chris Lombardi is the associate editor of On the Issues Magazine.

See also:

Risa Isard,  "Opening Historic Trails: Accidental Heroes Stomp Sports Inequity" by Risa Isard. On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.

Martha Burk, "Who Owns Sports? Dissecting the Politics of Title IX." On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.

Susan J. Bandy, "Curious Tension: Feminism and the Sporting Woman."  On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.

Marie Hardin, "Winning the Sports Beat: Female Writers Need Wide Angle Lens."  On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.


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