As Title IX celebrates its 40th anniversary today, the WNBA is in its 16th season, Hope Solo and Natalie Coughlin will be two of the biggest names at the London Olympics and participation numbers for women in college and high school athletics are at an all-time high. But perhaps the greatest legacy of the legislation originally intended to prohibit discrimination in education is found in a generation of young women growing up strong and self-assured because of their participation in sports.
A generation for whom sports is so ingrained in their lives, they can’t fathom being on the sidelines. A generation for whom Title IX is ancient history, if they remember it at all.
“That’s the way it should be,” said former Sen. Birch Bayh, who co-authored and sponsored Title IX. “It should be a given. That’s what we were trying to accomplish.”
• “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 education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance” – Title IX
The words “sports” or “athletics” are not even mentioned. At a time when women earned 9 percent of all medical degrees and 7 percent of law degrees, Bayh and the other Title IX supporters were simply hoping to provide more opportunities for women in higher education, give them a shot at higher-paying jobs.
But just as admissions numbers and financial aid fell under the broad definition of “education program,” so, too, did athletics.
“Sport is an educational opportunity. You learn about yourself and the world through sport,” said Angela Ruggiero, president-elect of the Women’s Sports Foundation and a member of the 1998 U.S. team that won the first Olympic gold medal in women’s ice hockey.
It wouldn’t be enough for schools to tack sign-up sheets on a bulletin board and count that as a team, or clear out a storage closet and call it a locker room. Title IX called for equal opportunity to play, and that meant schools had to offer scholarships and provide the same access to equipment, coaching and facilities.
Some prominent coaches and athletic directors, worried that Title IX would gut football, pushed to have revenue sports excluded from the compliance formula. But their attempt to amend the legislation in 1973 backfired. Spectacularly.
The Department of Health, Education and Welfare was instead ordered to develop a framework for how Title IX was to be interpreted and followed, with most of the regulations addressing athletics. It was these rules, issued in 1975, that provided the backbone for the legislation and have allowed it to withstand repeated challenges in court.
“They could have gotten exemptions for the big sports … if they didn’t cry so much about it,” said Donna Lopiano, who has been at the forefront of defending Title IX, first as the women’s athletics director at Texas from 1975-92 and then as CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation from 1992-2007.
“It created this media attention that allowed the women to voice the benefits of sport for boys and girls, and they convinced the public and Congress this was important for boys and girls. That was a tremendous accident.”
Once given the chance, girls flocked to the playing fields.
Before Title IX, fewer than 300,000 high school girls – one in 27 – played sports; there were less than 32,000 female athletes at the collegiate level. By 1974, just two years after the passage of Title IX, the number of high schoolers participating in sports had skyrocketed to 1.3 million.
Now more than 3 million high school girls – one in two – play sports. More than 191,000 females played NCAA sports in 2010-11.
Aside from the general health benefits of any physical activity, studies have shown that female athletes do better in school and have higher graduation rates. White female athletes had a 74 percent graduation rate compared with 68 percent for the overall student body, according to the most recent federal government calculations. The graduation rate for black female athletes was 66 percent, compared with just 46 percent in the overall student population.
A 2002 survey by Oppenheimer Funds found that 82 percent of female business executives had played organized sports after elementary school.
Female athletes are also less likely to smoke, use drugs or be suicidal. And, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation Report: Sport and Teen Pregnancy, published in 1998, teenage athletes were less than half as likely to get pregnant as non-athletes, and are more likely to delay having sex for the first time.
For all the strides female athletes have made, however, the playing field is not yet even. Women typically make up more than half of the student population, but were only 43 percent of the athletes last year, according to the NCAA. A 2007 study found that female athletes had received only 35 percent of total athletic expenditures in 2004-05. In the latest update of their “Women in Intercollegiate Sport” study, R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter found there were 215 female athletic directors at NCAA schools in 2012. But only 36 were in Division I.
And even though Title IX has been upheld by the courts time and again, it remains a matter of debate in the court of public opinion. There was a net loss of 300 men’s teams in Division I between 1988-89 and 2009-10, according to the NCAA, and Title IX is often blamed for the cuts. Never mind that there’s nothing in the legislation about cutting men’s teams to create opportunities for women. Or that the huge size – and expense – of football squads creates an inherent imbalance.
“There’s a lot more gains to be had,” Ruggiero said. “I think there’s a lot more room for growth, certainly in the participation numbers.”
There is also a vast difference when it comes to fan interest in women’s sports – at all levels.
Though the WNBA has not only survived but thrived, thanks in large part to early support from the NBA, there is no other major women’s professional league. Not even the fervor that surrounded last summer’s World Cup could save Women’s Professional Soccer, which folded last month after three seasons. The NCAA set an attendance record for women’s basketball with 11.2 million people last season – and that was still only about a third of the 33 million fans the men drew.
Entire towns turn out for a high school football game while the girls are lucky to get a few handfuls of friends to join their parents in the stands.
Though athletics may not have been the main objective of Title IX, the original supporters get immense satisfaction whenever they see a playing field filled with girls. Or hear fathers exhorting their daughters the same as they do their sons: Run! Shoot! Tackle!
“What makes the papers is the sporting aspect. But at the bottom of it, what we’re talking about is how do we educate our children to the best of their abilities?” Ruggiero said. “Whether that’s in the science department, math department, athletic department, it’s one in the same.”