By Karen Diegmueller — October 01, 1992 8 min read

Throughout her entire athletic career at Eau Gallie High School in Melbourne, Fla., Karen Kull never once had a female coach for any of the four sports she played. Many of the male coaches she had were fine, some even tremendous, she says, but there was one male coach with whom she had a particularly galling experience.

“The man did not know how to coach girls,” Kull, who was both a high school and college all-American, recalls. “He was calling us losers, telling us we weren’t worth anything. For guys, from what I understand, that would get them pumped up. Girls, on the other hand—and it wasn’t just me—started taking that stuff personally.”

Kull’s high school experience is becoming the norm. Since the passage of Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act 20 years ago, a whole generation of girls and young women have enjoyed opportunities to play sports unheard-of in their mothers’ time. But women seeking leadership positions in athletics have not fared nearly as well.

And experts in the field of women’s sports predict that prospects for female coaches are likely to worsen even further if steps are not taken to arrest the decline. “If the trend continues, in a short period of time there will be virtually no women coaches,” says Charlotte West, an associate director of athletics at Southern Illinois University.

Title IX was Congress’ way of trying to stamp out sex discrimination in the nation’s schools and colleges. It reads, “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 years immediately following the passage of Title IX were a watershed for girls and sports. In 1971, 294,015 girls participated in high school sports, compared with some 3.7 million boys, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. By 1977-78, the year schools were supposed to be in full compliance, 2.1 million girls and 4.4 million boys were taking part. Since then, participation has dropped and leveled off, with boys continuing to participate at about twice the rate of girls.

But if Title IX had a salutary effect on the number of girls participating in school athletics, it had quite the opposite effect on the number of female coaches and athletic directors; their ranks plummeted.

In a longitudinal study of women in intercollegiate sports, R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter, professors in the department of physical education at Brooklyn College, found that the percentage of female coaches of women’s teams fell from 90 percent in 1972 to roughly 48 percent today. State studies of interscholastic sports show similar patterns. For example, the percentage of women leading girls’ teams in Idaho fell from 80 percent in 1974 to 39 percent today.

Observers cite a number of reasons for this dwindling supply: lack of support; the time commitment, isolation, the devaluation of girls’ and women’s sports; and gender bias. Many contend that this chilly climate has deterred young women from choosing sports as a career because they see a limited number of female coaches and the obstacles that are often thrown in their path.

Ironically, the advent of Title IX, itself, apparently has proved to be somewhat of an impediment. Before Title IX became law, coaches of girls’ interscholastic teams—where they existed—were often unpaid. Women coached teams that were not accorded the resources that the boys’ teams had. But once the federal law mandated equality, including in the area of pay, it was a whole new ballgame.

“I think [the change] caught too many people off guard,” says Sharon Wilch, an associate commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Association. “The women weren’t quite ready to step into some of those positions, and the men saw [coaching a girls’ team] as a way to get a head coaching job faster.”

As a result, the women who had been working in this segregated field found men crossing over. Women can still be found as the predominant coaches in some sports, such as field hockey, lacrosse, and badminton. But in the most popular sports—track, volleyball, softball, and the numberone girls’ sport, basketball—men have taken over.

Many experts believe this situation must be reversed if girls are ever going to achieve sports equality and get the maximum benefit out of athletics. Young female athletes, they argue, need to be exposed to women in positions of leadership. “If all they ever see are male coaches and male athletic directors, they would just unconsciously assume maybe it’s OK to be an athlete but not OK to pursue sports as a career,” says Susan True, an assistant director of the national federation.

Notes Yevonne Smith, an associate professor of physical education at Michigan State University: “When one talks to girls in sports, sometimes they indicate a preference for male coaches because they see males as competent in sports. It would be good for them to see women in those roles, to change some of those stereotypes.”

But more than role models are at stake. The self-esteem and self-confidence of girls can take a beating not just from the men’s style of coaching but also from the fact that some men view girls’ and women’s sports as a steppingstone. Earlier this year in Montana, for example, a male coach ignited an uproar with comments he made to the Helena Independent Record.

After leading the Helena High School girls’ basketball team to consecutive state championships, Steve Keller resigned to become boys’ basketball coach. “I came to Helena with the idea of getting into AA,” Keller told the newspaper. “I felt if I did a good job with the girls, I could eventually move up with the boys.” Adding that his experience with the girls had been great, Keller went on to say that he could not pass up the position. “This is a career move for me,” he said.

In the nation’s high schools, much of the gender discrepancy among the coaching ranks can be traced to football. Football teams need more coaches than other sports teams, and women typically do not play interscholastic football. Consequently, principals and athletic directors have tended to hire men to coach football in the fall and other boys’ and girls’ sports in winter and spring, even if they have no experience coaching the other sports.

Women’s advocates say that the organizations best equipped to turn the situation around—the National Federation of State High School Associations and its affiliates—have done little. No more than a half-dozen of the state associations have undertaken activities aimed at increasing the number of women in coaching and athletic-directing jobs. Efforts that have been tried often consist of conferences and seminars designed to teach women coaching skills.

When Susan Schafer became Colorado’s sex-equity officer a decade ago, she was surprised to find men coaching girls’ teams.

“I just assumed women would be coaching because it had been 10 years since Title IX was passed,” she says.

Schafer went on the offensive. She organized coaching classes, taught women networking skills, published a newsletter containing job openings, and produced a brochure outlining how to become a coach.

As a result, Colorado countered the national trend. During the five years the program was in place, the proportion of female coaches rose from 38 percent to 41 percent. “It’s proof that doing something affirmative will have an impact,” says Schafer, who is now the director of curriculum and instruction for the Colorado Education Department.

Still, some observers worry that the seminar approach sends the wrong kind of message. While acknowledging the good intentions behind such an effort, Mary Jo Kane, a sports sociologist at the University of Minnesota, says it “poses the danger of implying that the problems rest with individual women rather than institutional discrimination.”

Many administrators, she says, harbor the perception that male coaches are more competent than female coaches. But this, Kane notes, is simply not true. Research shows, she says, that women are at least as qualified as men to coach.

Because the root of the problem is institutional, Kane argues, “the only way it is going to change is if the institutions and leadership within the institutions change.”

There are some positive signs, albeit small ones. Data from the Acosta-Carpenter longitudinal study show that the percentage of women coaching intercollegiate women’s teams increased ever so slightly between 1991 and 1992.

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that victims of intentional sex discrimination in schools can collect uncapped monetary damages. “There are new important legal tools, which I am hopeful will help turn things around,” says Ellen Vargyas, a senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “Hearts and minds can follow, but the pocketbook is where it will hit them first.”

And in April, a U.S. District Court jury in Oklahoma found that the Bray-Doyle school district discriminated against Linda Sue Bratcher, a music teacher, by denying her the opportunity to coach football. Bratcher had been a physical education major in college, where she played four years of intramural football and three other sports. After graduation, she attended summer coaching clinics and coached girls’ basketball. She later switched districts and served as a substitute coach for junior high girls’ and boys’ basketball; she also operated the clock and worked as a spotter at football games.

In 1987, Bratcher was laid off from her teaching post. Under state law and district policy, she was supposed to be recalled when a vacancy occurred for which she was qualified. Nonetheless, the district hired a male football coach from outside the district, and then, in 1990, it hired a man straight out of college when the football coach resigned.

The district has agreed to pay Bratcher $150,000 and to circulate a letter accepting the verdict as well as expressing regret that she was not offered the post.

None of this can come soon enough for Carpenter of Brooklyn College. Earlier this year, a woman in Indianapolis asked her if female athletes could progress in sports given the constraints of the recession. Carpenter replied: “The kids who are in college were not born when Title IX was passed. How long does it take to become feasible?”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Sidelined