Equity & Diversity

5 Ways Title IX Transformed School Sports (and More)

By Apoorvaa Mandar Bichu — June 22, 2022 4 min read
Monique Lopes, 16, far left, dresses with unidentified football players at Pepin High School prior to practice Monday, Sept. 27, 1999, in Pepin, Wis.
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Fifty years ago today, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. The civil rights law’s aim was broad: ban discrimination based on sex when it comes to “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

While the act applied to all educational programs, it pioneered massive changes when it came to women’s participation in high school, college, and by extension, professional athletics. Now, it’s cutting into new territory as a vehicle for guaranteeing transgender students’ a place on athletic teams that match their gender orientation. For Title IX’s 50th anniversary, here are five notable ways in which the law has transformed school athletics :

  1. Females’ participation in sports has grown.

    Since the enactment of Title IX in the 1970s, more women have chosen to take part in high school sports, with their numbers growing from fewer than 300,000 in the early 1970s to approximately 3.5 million students in the 2018-2019 school year (the last full year for which there is data). According to the National Federation for High School Sports, as many as 43 percent of high school athletes are women.

  2. The act has been used in recent years to advocate for transgender student athletes

    Title IX has been in the forefront of the debate around transgender student athletes and their rights. According to a report by the Human Rights Campaign foundation,14 percent of transgender boys and 12 percent of transgender girls play on a youth sports team. The same report showed 82 percent of “transgender and gender expansive youth” chose not to divulge their gender identity to their coach.

    The current debate has tended to ignite considerable debate around whether transgender women should be allowed to compete in the same spaces as cisgender women.

    “Scholastic sports are part of the school curriculum [and] are a way for students to develop strength but also develop deep relationships, self-esteem, teamwork, and a whole other range of really important individual characteristics,” said Jennifer Levi, the director of the Transgender Rights Project at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. “So the discussion around sports is one that is looking to ways to ensure that all students have those opportunities, including contendership.”

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    Last June, the U.S. Department of Education declared that Title IX extends to transgender rights. Despite that declaration, 19 states have placed restrictions on transgender athletes, according to the Associated Press.

  3. Title IX has been invoked to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

    While Title IX does not explicitly mention protecting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, it has been interpreted by the Biden administration to include the rights of gay and transgender students. Executive Order 13988 stated that, “all persons should receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation.”

    This was based on a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision, that protected gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals from discrimination in the workplace.

  4. Schools are now expected to have Title IX coordinators and offices to look into cases of sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and violence.

    The job of the Title IX coordinator and/or an office is to make sure the act is implemented and that students are protected from discrimination based on sex and are able to report cases of sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus.

    “Unfortunately, that still isn’t universally followed. I think that different school districts have different levels of attention that they have brought to Title IX issues,” said Emily Martin, the vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “That’s one reason why enforcement remains very important.... because of the knowledge that there’s some accountability if you violate Title IX.”

  5. Title IX protects against gender discrimination in both curricular and extracurricular activities beyond athletics.

    According to the NFHS, Title IX protects students from being discriminated based on their gender in school programs ranging from “STEM offerings (science, technology, engineering and math)” to “fine arts courses,” and prevents “gender bias in single-sex classes and programs outside of those explicitly authorized in the law’s implementing regulations.”

    This stipulation becomes even more important when placed in the historical context of the 1970s when the act was passed. “It was very common, for example, for girls to be sent to home economics class while boys were sent to shop class. It was not unusual for school guidance counselors to discourage girls from certain courses of study or plans for their future because... it was a given they’ll probably just get married anyway,” said Martin of the National Women’s Law Center. “It was [also] very common for PE to be gender segregated.”

Title IX has come a long way these past 50 years, but advocates say there’s still work to be done. Martin said some of the issues ahead include: continued efforts to address sexual harassment in schools, respecting the rights of pregnant and parenting students, keeping up the focus on LGBTQ+ student inclusion, and recognizing the unique experiences of girls of color in schools and the ways in which race discrimination and sex discrimination intersect.

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