The Prevalence of Black Females In College Sports: It’s Just An Illusion

The Prevalence of Black Females In College Sports: It’s Just An Illusion

If you had a chance to watch the NCAA women’s basketball championship in April, you probably noticed that 80 percent of the starters for Rutgers and Tennessee were non-White. Don’t be fooled into thinking this apparent diversity is representative of collegiate sports, because the prevalence of Black females in Division I sports is just an illusion. 

By Emmett L. Gill Jr.

To be sure, Black female participation in college sports has increased 955 percent in the 35 years since Title IX, which requires colleges to provide equal sports participation opportunities to women, became law. However, Black female student-athlete participation is, for the most part, limited to two sports: basketball and track. Ninety percent of Black female student-athletes compete in one of those sports. According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Systems (IPEDS), in fall of 2004 Blacks comprised 12 percent of all females who attended predominately White colleges.  Yet, according to the 2005 NCAA Race and Gender Report, Blacks comprised less than 5 percent of all female student-athletes in the Division I prep sports. In women’s soccer, lacrosse and rowing, the sports that have experienced the most growth because of Title IX, White women outnumber Black women 11,692 to 594. During the 2004-2005 academic year, only 47 Black females competed in Division I lacrosse and merely 23 in field hockey.

Using the same 2005 NCAA Race and Gender Report, a women’s field hockey player is 64 times more likely to be White than Black, a swimmer is 60 times more likely and a crew member is 44 times more likely. Between 1999 and 2005, Black women gained just 336 roster spots, compared to 2,666 for White women. If you think that is disturbing, then consider the fact that non-resident alien women — those born outside the United States — gained 981 slots during the same time period, despite being less than 3 percent of all college students.

In 1993, at the 5th Annual Black Athletes in America Forum, the Women in Sports Foundation president Donna Lopiano declared that race and gender are two separate issues that should be attacked “fervently, but separately.” Fourteen years later, and months before the 35th anniversary this summer of Title IX, the issues of race, gender and sports have not been attacked with any fervor. In fact, the racial inequities among female student-athletes have been completely ignored. 

There are a litany of factors and circumstances that have contributed to the ever-increasing inequities between Black and White female student-athletes: the ownership of Title IX by White advocates to the exclusion of Blacks; the inaction of Black feminists who fail to acknowledge the importance of sport in the lives of Black girls; the role of poverty in Black female sports participation; and the staggering amount of investment required to rectify the situation.

However, what is most concerning is the unwillingness of the most influential Title IX advocates to simply make the public aware that Title IX has not resolved the racial inequities of female student-athletes. Title IX advocates preach male-female equity, but have been largely silent about racial inequity. To achieve racial equity, or proportionality, in Division I prep sports, Black females must increase their number of student-athletes by 347 in soccer, 434 in swimming, and 429 in rowing. Title IX advocates, who are overwhelmingly White, are so out of touch that it is unlikely they have any idea of the cost associated with achieving equity between White and Black soccer players. According to my research, the cost associated with providing training, equipment, team fees, travel, tournament fees, and other expenses to 5,762 Black 5th grade soccer players (the ideal age to begin competing), over a seven-year period is approximately $14 million. During Lopiano’s 1993 speech, she presented a 16-point plan to help increase Black female participation in sports. Almost 14 years later, Lopiano, the premiere advocate for women in sports, has neglected to implement any of the components of her master plan.

Nevertheless, the benefits of the investment in Black female athletes are hard to overestimate. The research supports the notion that encouraging Black girls to play sports will reduce pregnancies and smoking, as well as strengthen their identities and abilities and academic success. Sixty-six percent of Black female college athletes graduate, compared to 50 percent of non-athletes. Hopefully, the investment will produce another Serena Williams or Cheyenne Woods, so they can earn a portion of the $95.9 million in tour money that currently exists in women’s professional tennis and golf. Or instead of expecting a return on our investment, maybe we can just revel in the joy that comes from knowing we treated White and Black female athletes fairly, because right now it’s just an illusion.  

— Dr. Emmett L. Gill Jr., is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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