Title IX turns 50 this month and, although the law is responsible for so much progress, the work is unfinished. The celebrations and acknowledgements are on the way, but for years women who play sports have been required to be thankful for scraps, and those days are over.
I was born in 1971, the year before Title IX was passed mandating progress in gender equity for schools receiving federal funding. I grew up in southern Virginia, where no one was driving me to an organized basketball practice and I had to wheedle my way into neighborhood games just to play. I grew up loving sports, and being told to my face long before the term “mansplaining” was coined, that girls don’t like sports.
Title IX was not intended at first to apply to sports. It was meant to get women into the law schools that had strict quotas, into the medical schools that had shut them out. According to the American Bar Association, in 1970 only 3 percent of lawyers were women — now they make up 54 percent of students enrolled in law schools. Overall, women make up 60 percent of enrolled college students.
In that sense and many other academic ones, Title IX has been a great success. Women (and for the purposes of this discussion we will use the binary while understanding that many people don’t sort themselves that way anymore) still lag in some areas, but the doors are not rigidly closed to them.
So to sports.
No part of Title IX’s implementation has been as litigated, protested, ignored, and loathed as it has been in sports.
Women’s success in the space has been in spite of the backlash, in spite of forces who considered women’s sports a waste of time and resources. It was only 20 years ago that wrestling coaches blamed Title IX for college decisions to cut some men’s sports, when in reality those schools were often making a decision to invest in football and men’s basketball.
For example, Oklahoma State has an actual, flesh-and-blood horse on hand for professional-grade photoshoots with football recruits, as detailed in this Athletic article. The football arms race, when it comes to locker rooms, amenities, stadiums and coaching salaries, is the stuff of legend and, occasionally, NCAA violations. But rather than blame athletic department priorities, it’s much easier to blame women’s sports.
Oregon basketball player Sedona Prince proved how ridiculous the inequities still are in 2021 when, during the early days of the women’s NCAA basketball tournament, she posted the paltry triangle of weights the women had access to, while in the men’s tournament hotel, a ball room had been turned into a workout Xanadu.
It’s actually a celebration of how long institutions can nickel and dime women in sports. NCAA schools are still pathetic when it comes to women in positions of power. This look at women who serve as Division I athletic directors put the number at 7.5 percent. USA Today did a more detailed look at the numbers, and found only 5 of the 65 Power 5 schools had women in the lead role.
Follow the money. Men are still in the decision-making roles when it comes to college sports, and that explains a lot.
The fact is that women are still in the thick of the fight when it comes to getting the resources and recognition the law calls for when it comes to sport. And that is because there is still a cultural resistance to women in the space. If I hadn’t gone into sports, prompted by my own love of playing sports and writing about them, I could have ignored it.
A woman in media still might be the only one in a locker room, or a sports department. We might be subject to sorting into a sideline role based on judgments about her physical beauty by a male executive, or into a behind-the-scenes role. We are aged out of television at an accelerated rate because only so much of the job is about our expertise, it is more about the perceived appeal to a male sports audience.
For women in professional sports, the fight has been joined by athletes investing in other women’s sports, and demanding the paychecks and the voice they have earned through their play. Listen to Sue Bird talk about how sports radicalized her on the Ladies Room podcast, with me and Julie DiCaro. Being a woman in sports is to become privy to all the institutional disadvantages women are subject to.
And I often think Title IX has hardened the boundaries between men’s and women’s sports. When I grew up, there were a lot of opportunities for informal co-ed play. Now, children are sorted into boys and girls teams for more cultural reasons than physical ones. And that rigidity encourages exclusion of people who don’t feel like either label fits. It is fuel for people who would completely exclude transgender children from play when it is completely unnecessary.
We need more inclusive play. It helps us realize we can work together, and that “the boys” and “the girls” aren’t separate and opposing forces.
Celebrating Title IX is fine, but the law hasn’t gotten us over the finish line in sports.
Walking into the next 50, I plan to adopt Sedona Prince’s attitude when it comes to the inequities that persist.
This should have been fixed already.