Gender and Sports: Forty Years of Title IX
When I was growing up my life revolved around sports. After school, on the weekends, and all during the summer my friends and I would play sports. We would hop on our bikes, ride around the neighborhood, and search out the nearest game: Street football in the fall, roller hockey in the spring, and basketball in the summer. While attending summer camp I played softball, soccer, and basketball all day long. All of this was in addition to the youth leagues, school teams, and intramural sports that I participated in.
In all of the hours that I spent playing sports as a kid I would say that 98% of the time it was an all-male affair. Whether it was informal neighborhood pick-up games or formal organized leagues, I was almost always playing with and against other boys. In fact, it was so unusual for me to see girls playing sports that I still remember the first co-ed sports camp I attended when I was thirteen-years-old. I didn’t know what to make of it.
I grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s. Back then, females were hardly encouraged and sometimes even not even allowed to participate in sports. There were very few little leagues for girls, most schools did not have too many (if any) sports teams for females, and societal expectations and gender norms for women did not include participation in sports. So it is no surprise that as a kid my life of sports occurred almost exclusively in the company of other boys.
This all began to change in 1972 with the passage of Title IX, an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972. Title IX states that:
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.
With the passage of Title IX the participation of females in sports skyrocketed. Although it was too early for me to see the effects with my female peers, the social landscape of sports is quite different today. As we now celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Title IX, the number of females participating in high school sports has increased by 904% and the number of females participating in college sports has increased 456%.
Today, it is almost just as common to see little girls playing sports as it is to see little boys. This trend is important not just for creating equal opportunities between females and males on the athletic field; in addition, sports participation among females has shown to produce other important benefits such as increased self esteem, lower teenage pregnancy, better grades, higher educational aspirations, less unemployment, and lower risk of obesity.
Although the benefits of allowing and encouraging females to participate in sports are undeniable, and although most people overwhelmingly support Title IX, there is still a vocal minority who oppose it. There are many myths about Title IX but the two arguments that I hear the most are: (1) It is no longer needed; and (2) It takes away opportunities from males.
With 1 in 3 girls now participating in school sports as opposed to 1 in 27 back in the 1970s, some may think we no longer need Title IX. Yet, despite having a federal law that is intended to ensure equal opportunity most educational institutions are still not in compliance with the law. For example, when I discuss Title IX in classes female athletes often talk about playing on poor fields located far away from school, having to wear old uniforms and use old equipment, and having coaches that are not as dedicated or as committed as the boys’ coaches. Despite these and other widespread violations, in the forty years of Title IX no educational institution has ever been severely punished for being out of compliance with this law.
The most vocal critics of Title IX argue that it inadvertently takes opportunities away from male athletes. Title IX has been blamed for the loss of men’s teams in wrestling, tennis, lacrosse, and other less popular sports. In reality, male participation and scholarship opportunities still outpace female participation and scholarship opportunities at the high school (see chart above) and at the college level according to the NCAA.
In fact, according to many sports economists, the financial drain on many athletic departments is not the need to be in compliance with Title IX and take from the males and give to the females; rather, the real culprit is the amount of money the school spends supporting the football and male basketball teams. These two programs gobble up so much of the athletic budget but they are rarely called out as being a disproportionate drain on resources. Title IX is a much more convenient scapegoat.
Whether one is an ardent supporter of Title IX, an outspoken opponent, or an indifferent bystander, it is important to recognize the tremendous impact this legislation has had in the past forty years for gender norms and gender relations. If you are a female, especially one who has played sports, the positive effects of Title IX are probably quite obvious. If you are a male, it may require some thought to identify how Title IX has affected you in positive ways. A good place to start is to think about all of the females you know—sisters, girlfriends, nieces, daughters, etc.—and consider the life chances and experiences you hope they have.
As a young boy who grew up playing sports, I know first hand the benefits I derived from this athletic lifestyle. When I think about my own experiences and then factor in all of the research that links female participation in sports to positive life outcomes, I feel strongly that all females should have the same athletic opportunities and the same athletic conditions that I enjoyed. That, to me, is what Title IX is all about.