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Student Well-Being

25 Years After Title IX, Sexual Bias in K-12 Sports Still Sidelines Girls

By Kerry A. White — June 18, 1997 10 min read
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In Minnesota, hockey rules. Children don ice skates and begin polishing their game on the frozen surface of the state’s 10,000 lakes not long after they take their first baby steps.

Hockey parents routinely shiver on the sidelines of indoor rinks, cheering their pint-size skaters through youth leagues. And whole towns come out on cold winter nights to root their local high school teams to victory.

Boys and girls in the state share equal passion for the sport and hone their skills on the same teams until high school. At that level, until a few years ago, young female hockey enthusiasts were relegated to the bleachers to cheer on the same boys they shared the rink with as children.

“Girls here have always played hockey, but when they got to the high school level, there were no teams for them,” said David V. Stead, the executive director of the Minnesota State High School League. “There was nothing for them to do.”

Title IX, the 1972 provision of the Education Amendments Act prohibiting sex discrimination by any educational institution receiving federal funds, was expected to change all that. The law states that “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.”

But a quarter of a century later, experts say that sex discrimination in elementary and secondary school sports programs continues to be a nationwide problem.

In Minnesota, for example, it took a group of parents, distressed that their daughters were being left at rink side, and armed with a newfound understanding of Title IX, to lodge discrimination complaints with the state education department and the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, the federal agency charged with enforcing Title IX.

“Schools were not accommodating girls’ interests,” said Susan Sattel, an education equity specialist for the Minnesota education department, who helped bring schools in her state into compliance with the law. “Parents wanted parity. We had to make school officials understand that. We pushed, and pushed, and pushed.”

The complaints prompted Minnesota to open up ice time for girls, becoming the only state in the nation to sanction girls’ ice hockey. Today, state school officials say, the sport has exploded, and nearly 6,500 girls play on middle and high school teams.

‘Halfway There’

Unlike in intercollegiate athletics, there are few national data on girls’ sports at the elementary and secondary school levels.

But, experts say, the statistics and anecdotal information that are available show that the problems with elementary and secondary girls’ sports mirror those at the intercollegiate level. Female athletes have half as many participation opportunities as their male classmates do, and often have to make do with inferior coaching, equipment, and practice facilities.

“Girls don’t receive the same opportunities as boys to play sports,” said Donna A. Lopiano, the executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, a New York-based advocacy organization founded in 1974 by tennis champion Billie Jean King.

Still, she and others concede that enormous strides have been made since the law’s passage. Participation in college and Olympic sports has skyrocketed, and more high school girls than ever are taking part in school sports. About 2.4 million girls played during the 1995-1996 school year compared with 294,000 girls in 1971-1972, the school year before Title IX was passed, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Boys’ participation levels were about 3.6 million for both the 1995-1996 school year and the 1971-72 year.

“There’s no question that enormous progress has been made,” Ms. Lopiano said. “But it’s a half-full, half-empty situation. We’re only halfway there toward equal opportunity.”

While opportunities for girls to participate in competitive athletics grew dramatically in the years following the law’s passage, the pace of progress has been choppy in recent years. Studies have found that during leaner times, when funding for schools decreases, fewer gains in equity are achieved.

Occasionally, there are even attempts to whittle back girls’ programs during times of fiscal austerity so that boys’ sports are not cut to make up a deficit.

Advances in girls’ sports today--when budgets for most schools are tight--are most often the result of sporadic Title IX complaints and the handful of civil lawsuits filed each year.

Although officials at the Education Department’s office for civil rights say that sports-discrimination complaints for elementary and secondary schools have averaged about 50 a year for the past several years, Title IX advocates say the number of schools out of compliance with the law is in the thousands.

In the cases where formal complaints are filed with the OCR, schools often manage to resolve the problem before or once a federal Title IX enforcement officer pays a visit.

If no settlement can be reached, the agency performs a full audit of the offending district’s sports program and then orders it to make changes.

The agency has a pretty good success rate, officials there say, and compliance has become easier to achieve over the years.

“More and more school administrators are willing to take a look at the situation and take some action without an entire investigation,” said Mary Frances O’Shea, the national coordinator for Title IX athletics at the OCR. “They are willing to do the right thing.”

Rising Litigation

But critics of the agency say it has not done nearly enough to achieve gender equity in sports. Because the agency does not investigate school sports programs unless a complaint is filed, the thousands of schools out of compliance have no motivation to make their programs equitable until they are forced to do so, the critics say.

“The office of civil rights doesn’t use a hammer,” Ms. Lopiano said. “They need to scare the heck out of schools so that they comply. Instead, they leave it up to parents to take these cases on at their own expense and in an acrimonious environment.”

So far, plaintiffs have prevailed--either won in court or settled out of court--in every Title IX lawsuit, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Most of the suits have been brought at the college level; however, the amount of litigation involving secondary schools is on the rise, according to the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, which, in addition to representing plaintiffs at the college level, has represented several high-school-age plaintiffs and their parents.

During the past three years, the law center has reached settlements with four Nebraska districts for discriminating against female athletes. The class actions involved girls who wanted their districts to add fast-pitch softball. Fast-pitch--not slow-pitch--softball is sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and, therefore, only fast-pitch softball players can compete for college scholarship dollars.

Although lawsuits are costly and time-consuming for parents and students, said Mary Jo Kane, the director for the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, they are often an easier, more effective means of bringing a school into compliance than relying on the OCR.

“People have no confidence in OCR,” she said. “If I had a Title IX complaint against a school, I would go straight to an attorney.”

Mr. Stead of the Minnesota State High School League asserted that the agency has been “absolutely no help” to sports programs in his state.

Besides the lack of enforcement, women’s sports advocates contend that a male-dominated upper tier of school administrators, athletic directors, and coaches--men reared largely in the pre-feminist, pre-Title IX era--are responsible for stunting girls’ gains in sports.

Diana Everett, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based National Association for Girls and Women in Sports, said she doesn’t foresee true gender equity in school sports until women share those positions of power with men.

“When women,” she said, “hold the purse strings.”

But critics of Title IX insist that they are not against the idea of expanding girls’ opportunities to play sports. Instead, they say problems arise when that expansion comes at the expense of already established boys’ sports.

Grant Teaff, the executive director of the Waco, Texas-based American Football Coaches Association, said that high school football programs are especially vulnerable to cuts because of their large size. Football teams can swell to 60-plus students, and there is no women’s sport of comparable size or expense, he said.

Gauging Interest

Advocates for women’s sports sharply dispute what they see as a longstanding misconception that girls and women are not as interested as boys and men in playing sports.

That idea persists, they say, despite U.S. women’s stellar showing at the Olympics last summer, which included gold medals for the U.S. women’s soccer, softball, and basketball teams, as well as for American women swimmers and track-and-field athletes; the creation of women’s professional basketball, softball, and soccer leagues; and a new prominence in general of girls’ and women’s sports.

“The same arguments used against Title IX in 1972 are being used today. The excuse is always used that gender equity means curtailing men’s programs, instead of gender inequity hurts women,” Ms. Kane said. “Just look at the Brown University case.”

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that Brown University had discriminated against female athletes under Title IX. The university’s lawyers had argued that the percentage of its women athletes need only match the number of female students “interested” in sports, an argument that the courts rejected. Ironically, Brown had been considered one of the most enlightened universities in expanding women’s sports programs.

Brown officials were among the leaders who took their case to Capitol Hill to complain that the OCR unfairly carries out its mandate by favoring women in its interpretation of the three ways that education institutions can comply with the law. (“Testing Title IX,” in This Week’s News.)

Interest is a complex thing to gauge on its own, experts say.

Studies show that girls and boys younger than 9 are equally interested in playing sports, but once they reach puberty, girls drop out at a much higher rate than their male counterparts.

It is at this time, many researchers say, that girls begin to respond to the not-so-subtle message pervading both schools and the mass media that sports is largely a male domain.

Research, however, also suggests that as boys and girls approach adolescence, playing sports becomes less fun for both sexes because coaches tend to emphasize winning over recreation, a shift that turns off many students regardless of gender.

“Teenage girls, even ones with incredible aptitude for sports, are the hardest to keep playing,” said Ms. Everett, a former coach. Coaches, she said, do battle with gender stereotypes and peer pressure for young girls to be soft, pretty, and feminine.

Lasting Benefits

But research also shows that young girls reap particular and long-lasting benefits if they stay in the game.

A recent study by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport concluded that girls involved in organized sports have a better body image, more self-confidence, and lower rates of stress and depression. They also make better grades and are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college than their nonathletic counterparts, it found.

Other studies have linked girls’ participation in organized sports to lower rates of bulimia, anorexia, drug use, and teenage pregnancy, although more studies are needed to confirm this link.

The research helps validate what many coaches, teachers, sports psychologists, parents, and girls themselves say they have known all along and gives people more reason to advocate for girls’ sports.

“Younger girls have the sense that they can play anything,” said Lynn Jaffee, a project director for the Melpomene Institute, a St. Paul-based organization that studies the link between physical activity and the health of women and girls.

“If we encourage that by providing them opportunities to play sports, if we make that experience fun, and if we continue to provide them with role models,” she said, that feeling will last a lifetime.

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