Posted: August 10, 2012 in discrimination, women

Those of us who have been glued to our big-screen quad-sound televisions — or whatever’s handy — for the last week or so should remember that the thrill of watching the U.S. women’s soccer, beach volleyball, and gymnastics teams win gold has been brought to you by legislation that, at the time it was enacted in 1972, was wildly controversial.

The ruling had its roots in the civil rights foment of the 1960s. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation website, Title IX is really very short and simple: “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 educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Sounds reasonable, no?

As a result, high schools, colleges and universities were forced to provide for women’s sports programs, in many cases sacrificing smaller men’s programs to make room, both physically and financially.

“While Title IX was never meant to be an overhaul of athletics, in many ways, that’s what it became,” writes Amy Donaldson in the Deseret News. “It certainly bolstered educational opportunities for women, but it was sports and the creation of women’s teams and leagues that made Title IX so visible, so controversial and so impactful.”

“While it opened doors for women that had not only been shut but non-existent, it was also used (some would say as an excuse) to dismantle and reduce the number of athletic opportunities for men — especially at the collegiate level,” she said.

At my college, wrestling and men’s gymnastics were phased out, and I remember that their fans and alumni were really vocal in their disappointment: How could women athletes possibly make up for such a loss? Who would ever want to waste their time or —GASP — pay money to watch a bunch of girls play? The legislation would effectively ruin college sports, critics predicted.

It was the beginning of a long period of transition for women. I had older brothers who were stars on their high school football, basketball, and baseball teams during the Sixties, and my father avidly followed their games and bragged to his friends about their plays and points. Me? I was never encouraged to try out for anything but choir. It simply wasn’t a consideration. My parents pointed me firmly in the direction of academics, arts, and homemaking. The basketball hoop installed at the end of the driveway wasn’t put there for me. I got piano lessons. If I dreamed of gold, it was in a tiara accompanied by a big bouquet of roses and Bert Parks singing, “There she is… Miss America!”

And I think I was the worse for it. I didn’t learn the sort of team-building skills my brothers acquired on the field. I never learned how win graciously, or — more importantly — how to lose, how to shake it off, congratulate the victor, and move on.

I remember at the time the legislation was enacted listening to former U.S. Congresswoman Karen Shepherd describe watching her son and daughter play basketball.

“Why did you keep giving the ball to _____?” she asked her son. “I thought you all hated him.”

“Oh, we do,” said her son. “He’s a jerk — but he’s our best shooter.”

Later she watched her daughter play. “Why didn’t you give the ball to _____?” she asked her daughter. “She’s your best player. You might have won the game.”

“We were mad at her,” her daughter replied. Discussion over.

We girls just didn’t get it. We often couldn’t separate our personal feelings and fears from the possibility of achieving a greater good, and I believe we carried that lack of understanding into our jobs and our relationships. I’m sure I could have learned something  really valuable, even life-altering, from sports.

After 40 years, the benefits to women have been impressive. Consider the following stats, courtesy of ESPN:

  • In 1971, the year before Title IX became law, fewer than 300,000 girls participated in high school sports, about one in 27. Today, the number approaches 3 million, or approximately one in 2½.
  • The number of women participating in intercollegiate sports in that same span has gone from about 30,000 to more than 150,000. In the last 20 years alone, the number of women’s college teams has nearly doubled.
  • Before Title IX, only tennis and golf had established professional tours. Today, there are also women’s professional leagues for soccer, volleyball, bowling and two for basketball. Women have even made inroads in the traditionally male sport of boxing.

Don’t forget that, for the first time in U.S. Olympic history, the 2012 team had more women athletes than men. And, as of this morning, CNN was reporting that, of the 39 U.S. gold medals won so far, 26 of them went to women. WOOT!

Despite all these gains, Title !X has yet to be fully realized. The arguments and numbers vary depending on what side of the debate you’re on, but 40 years later, women’s sports program still fall short of the 50 percent mandated by the federal legislation. (If you’re interested, it’s all on the Google under Title IX controversy.)

But I’m not going to worry about that right now,  I’ll think I’ll leave enforcement to the feds — and go back to basking in the glow of all those gold medals. You GO, girls!

  1. This was a very thought-provoking post. Although my school days were after Title IX, things certainly hadn’t progressed to where they are now. I observe a lot of dynamics among women in my workplace that are very similar to what the congresswoman described in the basketball analogy. And I, myself, have never learned how to be comfortable with competition — on any level. Now you have me wondering if more sports, at a younger age, might have helped us all. There are obviously other factors, but I’d never looked at it through this lens. Very interesting.

    • msmeta says:

      I SO agree with you about competition. If it looks like a battle on any level, I usually just walk away. Good point.

  2. notquiteold says:

    Had I had the opportunity or encouragement to play sports in school, I probably still would have been terrible. But I think I would have liked my body more… and what it could do. That would have been pretty nice.

    • msmeta says:

      I agree. I’ve always been quite strong “for a girl,” and I have good reflexes. Maybe if I’d gotten to use them, I’d have a better appreciation of my physical self.

  3. Donna says:

    Excellent post. From my observations over the course of my career, the competition among women in the workplace does not typically reflect the positive lessons learned from sports. It seems to me that many women are threatened by other women, they can’t get past the personal and don’t work together well as a team. At first I thought it was our generation, but the early career professionals who grew up with Title IX seem to have the same hang-ups.

  4. Yes, you go girls! I think Title IX is great, but it doesn’t explain everything. Even without such legislation, women gold medals in Team GB have overtaken men’s. And look at the countries like Saudi Arabia who, for the first time, are fielding women athletes. There’s a long way to go, but the whole world has made a start.

    • msmeta says:

      I think anything sensible and democratic can be contagious. Other nations saw the strides being made by the American, Australian and British women and others, and wanted to be part of it. The whole thing is very empowering.

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