When Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act was passed in 1972 it stated, in part, “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.” More than 40 years later, we have a law that was meant to protect many, but is too focused on a few — those participating in varsity-level collegiate sports.
Title IX legislation applies, with a few exceptions, to all students and employees in educational and training activities and programs in institutions receiving federal financial assistance. This includes, but is not limited to: preventing discrimination in public and private elementary, secondary and postsecondary institutions; and Title IX legislation focuses on 10 program areas: access to education, athletics, career education, education of pregnant and parenting students, employment, the learning environment, math and science, sexual harassment, standardized testing and technology. Despite this broad coverage, Title IX is often narrowly associated with athletics.
The Title IX statute did not originally mention athletics; however, when a 1973 Sports Illustrated article, “Programmed to be Losers,” highlighted that the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Education) was trying to decide if all sports and teams should be open to both sexes, or if they should be separate but equal programs, athletics took center stage in Title IX discourse and has remained there ever since.
When the Title IX floodgates opened and athletics floated to the top, other educational programs and activities were drowned out in sports rhetoric. In the 1990s, the Cohen v. Brown University case reinforced proportionality. Since then, the discourse has become so fixated on universities having equal ratios of female to male varsity athletes to full-time undergraduate students that we have failed to ensure that we are meeting the interests and needs of all students, athletes and non-athletes, as well as employees that are offered protection under the law.
In 1979, a Title IX and intercollegiate athletic policy interpretation was issued that stated, “Its general principles will often apply to club, intramural, and interscholastic programs, which are also covered by regulation.” Despite a provision that explicitly identified other levels of sport as falling under Title IX legislation, the interpretation focuses primarily on varsity intercollegiate athletics, disregarding sports with significantly higher participation rates.
For instance, according to the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association’s (NIRSA) website, approximately 7.7 million students participate in intramural and club sports. Moreover, the National Federation of High Schools estimates that 7,807,047 students (4,519,312 boys and 3,287,735 girls) participated in interscholastic sports during the 2014-15 season.
Despite these high participation rates, outside of institutional ad hoc reviews, there are currently no systematic reviews of Title IX compliance or federal Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) reporting requirements at these levels. The High School Data Transparency amendment (S. Amdt. 2124) of the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 seeks a similar level of transparency mandated for college sports to exist in interscholastic sports. The Senate passed the act and accompanying amendments in July 2015, but the fate of this amendment lies with the House and president.
Title IX has no one race, no one ethnicity and no one class, yet for years we have primarily been accommodating the needs of upper-middle-class White women in collegiate varsity sports. Title IX legislation is based on a color- and class-blind approach that centers on sex discrimination, while race and class issues are marginalized. Echoing Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, chief of organizational excellence for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), “Caucasian girls have benefited disproportionately well, especially suburban girls and wealthy Caucasian girls.”
African-American women are predominantly represented in only two sports: basketball and track and field, and have not had the same level of access to scholarships as White women. Moreover, universities and colleges have increasingly been adding “country club” sports (e.g., golf and tennis) or sports such as lacrosse based on a select few or club system, which are predominantly played by persons of European and Asian descent with higher socioeconomic statuses.
Title IX has a high valuation and whether it is acknowledged or not, women and men in U.S. society, in and out of sport, would not be where they are at without Title IX. We have to move past our narrow focus on proportionality and the minute number of students playing varsity-level sports.
More attention needs to be brought to all women and men, all levels of athletics, all educational programs and all institutions that are afforded protection under the law. When opportunities are provided, when discrimination wanes, persons have the opportunity to take on identities that they were once denied.
Title IX and other civil rights laws have helped us to realize the possibilities of our identities. It is now time for Title IX to take on a new identity — one that is inclusive instead of exclusive; one that has a broad focus instead of myopic tendencies.
Dr. Jacqueline McDowell is an assistant professor of sport management in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University.