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April 1, 2004

Title IX and Women’s Sports

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 has made some progress in promoting gender equity — and has been the catalyst for cultural, economic and social change for women’s sports — but has not eliminated discrimination against female athletes, said national sports expert Donna Lopiano.

The U.S. law prohibiting federally funded education programs or activities from discriminating on the basis of sex has dramatically increased women’s participation in sports, but the lack of enforcement has sustained disparities in funding support for women’s athletics.

“I’d say we’re only about half- way there [to true gender equity]. It will take another 10-20 years to finish the job,” Lopiano said at a two-day conference here on “Title IX and Gender Equity in Education: The Unfinished Agenda.”

“This generation is very active, with 55 million women participating in sports and fitness,” said Lopiano, a member of the National Sports Hall of Fame. “More than half of all volleyball players, 43 percent of all runners and 41 percent of all soccer players are female. Thirty-one million girls play team sports. In 1970, one in 27 girls played high school varsity sports. Today, it’s one in every three.” There are 17 women’s professional leagues in operation with more to come, she added.

Girls’ participation in high school sports since the passage of Title IX has increased by 872 percent, to 2,856,358, Lopiano said. “But it’s important to note that male participation has also continued to go up, to 3,988,738 today. In fact, the level of female participation is still behind the 1972 figure for males (3,666,917).”

Rather than a zero-sum gain as Title IX critics predicted, overall participation has almost doubled, she pointed out, from 3.8 million total participants in 1972, to over 6.5 million currently.

These positive signs are offset, however, by severe inequities in dollar distribution between the sexes in athletics.

“Where are we today? In terms of college athletic scholarships, 42 percent are going to female athletes. Is that close to equal?” Lopiano asked. “In the United States more than $1 billion goes to college athletic scholarships each year. That’s $137 million a year less for females than for males, even though almost 56 percent of the college student body is made up of women. It’s a really big gap.”

While there isn’t equivalent data for high schools, unequal participation is a strong indication of gender inequity, she said. “Three states — Vermont, New Hampshire and Minnesota — have 50-50 male and female participation in sports.” The rest of the states are skewed toward males. “The farther south you go, the more you get into football country, the bigger the gender gap.”

Other indicators of gender inequity cited by Lopiano include:

• The discrepancy between operating budgets for male and female college sports is more than $1 billion a year.

• Annual recruiting budgets for women athletes are $36 million less than those for men athletes.

• Fewer than 2 percent of coaches in men’s sports are female; 44 percent of coaches in women’s sports are female.

• Some 88 percent of all sports media coverage is of male sports; 90 percent of sports writers, editors and broadcasters are men.

• In college sports leadership positions, 17 percent of athletics directors, 28 percent of trainers and 12.3 percent of sports information directors are female.

The problem of gender equity is not lack of public support, Lopiano said, with more than two-thirds of the public in favor of Title IX, and 87 percent of parents agreeing that sport is equally important for their sons and daughters.

According to Lopiano, the No. 1 inhibitor of progress toward gender equity is the lack of enforcement of Title IX by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. “All the OCR has to do is to remove federal funds from one institution, to let all institutions know they’re serious. But they won’t do it. Not once has anybody been found in non-compliance. Instead OCR says, ‘You’re in compliance once you fix A, B and C,” which is a disincentive to comply, she said.

In lieu of enforcement, individual lawsuits, both expensive and time-consuming, have to be filed, Lopiano said. “You can win a Title IX case in court, but it usually takes years.”

She said a second reason for the lack of progress is deceit. Title IX mandates equalizing opportunities for males and females, not necessarily in parallel sports, she said. By subverting the definition of sports, which includes interscholastic competition, to pad their numbers, “Athletic directors can make cheerleading a varsity sport, or call club sports varsity sports but they won’t pay the coach, or provide an operating budget or have an equal amount of practice time or equal facilities. This is unethical, but it’s done all the time.”

Another factor slowing progress, Lopiano said, “is this ridiculous macho contest of who is better.” She said invariably young males would argue that boys are better athletes than girls. Instead of giving a biological explanation about how the male growth hormone develops more muscle mass and hence strength, she responds: “Who is the better boxer, Muhammed Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard? The boys say, ‘That’s not a fair question because the two are in different weight classes.’ So it’s okay to divide boxers into different weight classes and have great boxers in every weight class, but girls can’t have their own class?

“Who’s a better athlete than Jackie Joyner-Kersee? Venus and Serena Williams are not great athletes? Different does not mean ‘less than’; it means ‘not the same as,’” she said.

Adding more co-ed sports to increase equity is a slippery slope, if those sports are based on a gender disadvantage. “For example, riflery can be a co-ed sport. But, if you have a tryout for the golf team and women have to play from the men’s tees, they wouldn’t get an equal chance to play for the team.”

Those who decried Title IX as the death-knell of big-time football also are off the mark, Lopiano said. “Title IX was opposed [initially] because football coaches were afraid they’d have to share their money with girls.”

In fact, the average percentage of the operating budget for college men’s sports that goes to football has risen since 1985 from 38 percent to 56 percent.

“In 2001, 74 percent of operating dollars of men’s sports were spent on football and basketball,” she said. “That’s why if a men’s wrestling team is closed down, it’s because that money is going to football. To say Title IX is responsible for these losses is ludicrous.”

Lopiano further recommended that college presidents get out from under the foothold of football coaches, who insist on bloated rosters. “[Statistics] indicate that on average 43-46 players get into a football game. You don’t need 95 kids on the roster. Who gave boys the God-given right to be a walk-on? What happened to the tryout, where you make the team or you don’t?” said Lopiano, who herself has participated in 26 national college championships in four sports and has coached men’s and women’s volleyball and women’s basketball and softball during her career.

The argument that football generates revenue while most other sports do not is irrelevant in talking about equity, she said. “Football doesn’t actually make money and, even if it did, there cannot be an economic justification for discrimination.”

Levying fines against non-Title IX compliers is an inadequate solution, Lopiano said, when budgets are so large. “No one would blink an eye at a million-dollar fine,” she said.

The most successful model for enforcement at the state level was initiated in Kentucky, she said, where high schools that could not demonstrate equal gender opportunity were barred from competing in playoffs and championships. “With limited years of athletic eligibility, this becomes a big deal,” she said, adding that more state-by-state enforcement would aid in lessening inequality.

The conference on gender inequity, which included panelists and lecturers from local and national organizations (see sidebar story), was co-sponsored by Pitt’s women’s studies program, School of Law, School of Education, Office of the Provost, Department of Communications and Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, as well as The Women’s Law Project, the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Education Law Center.

—Peter Hart

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