Despite Title IX, Inequity in Girls’ and Women’s Sports Persists

Nearly 40 years after the federal Title IX law emerged to level the playing field for women-athletes, it’s becoming clear that the law is a little bit like that first-round draft pick who’s just not living up to the hype.

“There is still a long way to go before Title IX’s goal of equal educational opportunity is fully achieved,” wrote the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) in a recent court brief. Even as millions of female students have been empowered to lace up their cleats and surge onto athletic fields, many schools still fail to provide equal opportunities. “And unfortunately, some schools engage in deceptive practices—such as manipulating team rosters to inflate the numbers of women and deflate the numbers of men, and counting extracurricular activities as varsity sports.”

For example, “At Cornell (University in New York), only when the 34 fencers on the women’s team take off their protective masks at practice does it become clear that 15 of them are men,” wrote the New York Times earlier this year.

That kind of deceptive play was not the law’s intent. Passed in 1972, Title IX bans sex discrimination in any federally funded education program. This means equal numbers of male and female athletes; equal values in athletic scholarships; equivalent athletic fields and facilities; and so on. These opportunities are particularly important for students of color, who are more likely to get better grades and graduate from both high school and college, if they participate in sports.

To a certain extent, the law has delivered the stats of a heavy-hitter. In 1971, just 30,000 women competed in college sports. In 2009, according to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), their numbers hit 182,000. Similarly, the number of girls in high school sports has grown from 295,000 to 3.2 million today.

But at least three factors are making it difficult for colleges to fulfill their legal obligations. First, the number of college-enrolled women continues to outpace men—women now constitute 57 percent of American college students. Second, coaches may not understand the law’s requirements. A recent survey by an Ithaca College professor found that just 83 percent have ever received instruction on it. And finally, public funding to education has decreased in many states. So, instead of forking over the money for an additional women’s team, many colleges are more likely to pad the rosters of their existing ones.

At the University of South Florida, about two-thirds of the 71 women on the cross-country roster never ran a race in 2009, the Times reports. “Asked about it, a few laughed and said they did not know they were on the team.”

NEA strongly supports enforcement of Title IX. In 1974, its Representative Assembly, the union’s highest governing body, adopted a resolution affirming its commitment to equal opportunities for male and female students to participate in athletic programs at all educational levels.

Additionally, last month, NEA and numerous like-minded organizations, such as the National Council of La Raza, signed a “friend of the court” brief, prepared by NWLC and filed in a federal appeals court on behalf of students who say their college would be violating Title IX if it eliminates the women’s volleyball team as planned. In the place of volleyball, the college, Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University, plans to call its new cheerleading squad a varsity team and claim Title IX compliance.

Although cheerleading does require athleticism, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has ruled multiple times that cheerleading, as well as pompom squads, “dancelines,” and drill teams, are all extracurricular activities that do not qualify as varsity sports.

“These educational institutions (seek) to count these activities as varsity sports in lieu of adding genuine sports participation opportunities for girls,” wrote the NWLC in its brief to a federal appeals court. It’s about “giving the appearance of Title IX compliance and avoiding the addition of genuine sports participation opportunities for women.”

But, even as one court weighs the Quinnipiac case, another recently opened the doors for girls in Oldham County, Kentucky, where a father had argued that his daughter was denied equal facilities. Specifically, at her high school, where boys enjoyed a new $1.43 million field house, replete with weight room and viewing room with audio visual equipment, girls had nothing like it.

“For me, it all comes down to equal treatment,” wrote the father, Dick Richards. “Girls should receive the same treatment as boys, period. Anything less than equality is discrimination.”