In 1972, US lawmakers passed a seemingly simple law – widely known as Title IX – against gender discrimination in education: “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.”
The 50th anniversary, officially 23 June, is being celebrated in countless documentaries and news stories for the effects it had on promoting gender equality in sports, particularly at college level. Indeed, it’s so embedded in US culture that a women’s sports apparel company named itself Title Nine, using sales pitches like “Busy Boobs Need Better Bras.”
To be sure, Title IX’s effects are far from limited to sports. It’s the go-to law governing sexual harassment on campus, though the particulars vary depending on who’s in the White House. And the law didn’t just even out the gender balance in colleges but completely flipped it, from nearly a 3-2 male-female ratio in 1970 to the opposite today.
A similar story is playing out in international sports. At last year’s Tokyo Olympics, US women accounted for 66 medals, while the men pulled in 41. (Another six came from open or mixed events.) That was the starkest gender gap to date, and was an extension of the trends dating back a couple of decades.
The college and scholastic sports under Title IX’s domain don’t always play a direct role in Olympic success. Women’s gymnasts tend to compete in college after their Olympic careers, if at all. The NCAA doesn’t sponsor competition in several sports in which US women won medals in Tokyo, and college equestrian events are but a distant cousin to the Olympic program. But athletes such as Katie Zaferes, a former long-distance runner at Syracuse who turned to triathlon, and Sarah Robles, who gave up a shot-put career to pursue weightlifting, took only a small detour from their school sports to their Olympic sports.
More generally, the rise of women’s college sports and the ensuing wave of international success in soccer and basketball broadened the scope of what a female athlete could accomplish. Previous generations had fewer opportunities, generally taking just a momentary bow on the world stage to celebrate medals in gymnastics, swimming, track and field, and figure skating – another sport in which NCAA competition doesn’t exist.
But US colleges and high schools, rather than at the Olympics, are where Title IX has had the most direct impact. From 1982 to 2020, before the number of student-athletes dipped slightly due to the Covid pandemic, the number of women in NCAA college sports grew from 64,390 (28% of student-athletes) to 221,212 (44%). High school sports data shows a similar story. In 1972, the year Title IX was introduced, only 294,015 of the approximately 4m registered high school athletes (around 7%) were female. In 2019, the numbers were 4,534,758 boys and 3,402,733 girls, a 57-43 split.
That is, of course, not quite a 50-50 split between male and female athletes. And the progress left to be made could be controversial, particularly in college.
The first issue is how to define whether a school is compliant with Title IX. To be compliant, a school must meet one part of the oft-cited “three-prong test”:
* Is the school “fully and effectively accommodating the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex”? This prong is a bit antiquated, despite efforts to clarify it. Colleges, even those that don’t offer scholarships, recruit athletes. Students generally don’t show up on a college campus and express interest in and show aptitude in a sport that doesn’t already exist at the school. In high schools, “interests” and “abilities” are difficult to gauge because many sports are, by their very nature, exclusionary. How many reasonably competent boys or girls didn’t make the soccer or basketball teams?
* What’s the school’s history in building opportunities for “the underrepresented sex” (in all but the rarest of cases, women)? This one is also difficult to quantify. Is there a point at which a school can “max out,” or must it keep finding sports to add for women? Over the past couple of decades, schools have sought to keep up by adding large women’s teams in sports such as rowing, usually without a concurrent team for men.
* Do sports participation numbers mirror the school’s enrollment? In other words, if a school is 60% female (as many are), are 60% of the school’s athletes also female? The advocacy group ChampionWomen produced a database just before the pandemic that showed few schools in compliance – and many schools that would have to go through difficult contortions to meet the standard.
The irony is that colleges with the most women are those least likely to be in compliance with participation numbers. The only schools that fared well in the ChampionWomen study were those few schools that enroll far more men than women. In other words, colleges that have been successful in meeting Title IX’s intent of increasing educational opportunities for women may be punished by the more rigidly enforced outcome of increasing athletic opportunities by either adding women-only sports or cutting the football team.
Another complicating aspect of pushing forward is that the very notion of varsity sports’ outsized grasp of college culture is being questioned. A 2015 study by The Drake Group found that 98% of NCAA athletic programs are subsidized by student fees, something that does not always sit well in an era of concern about student debt. Also, the Operation Varsity Blues scandal found several embarrassing instances of parents faking their daughters’ athletic résumés, even including some creative photo editing, to gain admission to elite colleges that accept only a tiny percentage of applicants but wave recruited athletes – often from wealthy families that can afford the best coaches – through the gates.
Finally, the NCAA will have to reckon with the impact of name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities that give student-athletes a chance to earn money. As expected, the lion’s share of that money has gone to football and basketball players, though women’s basketball players and some gymnasts have done well. How will the NCAA and watchdog groups factor those opportunities into Title IX evaluations?
No matter what happens down the road, though, Title IX’s impact is lasting and nearly impossible to overstate. Many women are athletes. Many athletes are women. And to the generations that have grown up since Title IX became law, that’s simply the way it is and surely will be.