Opinion | Gender discrimination plagues athletes, even 50 years after Title IX

Alexis Rogers, Assistant Sports Editor

Growing up as a girl in sports in the 21st-century, I have benefited unknowingly from Title IX my entire life. I ran cross country in middle school, played soccer, softball and swam, and I did it all with an assurance that my opportunities would not be abridged because of my sex. I’ve gained an understanding about my community, lifelong friendships and healthy habits through participation in school-sponsored activities.

Despite overwhelmingly positive experiences, I remember always feeling like I had to prove myself to male counterparts who always defaulted to “that’s good for a girl.”

“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 educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” With these words, the landscape of high schools across America were forever changed. They offer protection from harassment and ensure that whatever resources and privileges are offered to men’s programs will be matched with those for women.

Title IX is a legal measure that addresses—but can’t eliminate—an issue still present in the culture of athletics today: women’s sports are not given the same attention and respect as men’s sports. While the Title grants protection in courts, sexism cannot be easily banished in everyday life, including in the world of school athletics.

The ETHS athletics department took time to celebrate Title IX’s 50th year at the halftime of the boy’s basketball game at Welsh-Ryan arena on February 4th, lining up female student athletes and alumni to spell out “IX” numerals in honor of the Title. Watching the presentation of the impact of women’s sports, and speaking to several alumni whose high school experiences were fundamentally shaped by athletics, I gained a new appreciation for the impact of accessibility.

I asked girls’ basketball’s head coach Brittanny Johnson about Title IX after the game, and she told me “I wouldn’t be able to coach without it.” It wasn’t until I did more research that I understood just how true this statement was. 

The list of ETHS Athletics Hall of Fame inductees stretches back to students who took to the football field and basketball court in the 1910s. The first female member is Pam Page, who ran track & field in 1976 (almost 70 years after the first male inductee), and she is followed by three other women from the next two years, all within five years of the passing of Title IX.

Before the implementation of Title IX, seven percent of all high school athletes were female. After, that number rose to 41 percent. Women simply weren’t present in athletics before Title IX.

Sports are incredible resources for social connection, maintaining health and fitness and building self confidence. None of these goals have a sex requirement. All students deserve to have equal access to the benefits that athletics can bring.

Still, athletics are viewed as a male endeavor. We equate athleticism and physical prowess with masculinity, and that assumption influences the activities youth are encouraged to pursue. If you search Google for “activities for girls,” the links bring you to DIY projects and arts & crafts. The top results for “activities for boys” are “shoot stuff” and “get muddy.” Young girls are expected to be the creative, organized antithesis to their physical, messy male counterparts.

Activities like gymnastics, cheer and dance, which are dominated by women, are often criticized for their artistic aspects, because we associate creativity with femininity and femininity with weakness. Dancers and gymnasts maintain incredible physical control and discipline, yet are not given the same attention and respect as men who play football or baseball. 

The professional gender wage gap (high-performing women often earn less than mediocre men in the same sport) quantifies the lack of regard given to women’s sports. Furthermore, financial discrepancies are obvious in college programs, despite the protections Title IX attempts to give. For every dollar spent on recruiting male athletes, top colleges pay 58 cents for recruiting women. Girls grow up seeing just how little men care about the effort that they put into personal and team improvement.

Furthermore, women of color do not receive the same protections as white women. Forty percent of American public high schools are classified as “highly segregated,” consisting of either 90 percent white or nonwhite students. Among these schools that predominantly serve students of color, 40 percent have large opportunity gaps, meaning there are differences of 10 points or more between the female percentage of the total student body and the percentage of female participants in sports. The same gap is seen in 16 percent of mainly white schools, according to the National Women’s Law Center

Despite being essential for the foundations of women’s sports, Title IX has a long way to go before reaching its full capabilities of establishing equality. However, the flexible nature of law, and social progress, means we can improve anti-discrimination policies through the government and our own school athletics department.

New Title IX rules are going to be released by the Biden administration in May, and they will expand upon the protections against sexual harassment and discrimination against LGBTQ+ students. For the first time, safeguards would be put in place to ensure that transgender and nonbinary youth could participate in programs that align with their gender identity.

ETHS is making strides to make up for the history of barriers women face in sports, and acknowledging the scope and impact of Title IX should just be the beginning. We need a change in perspective—the perspective that says that women aren’t as capable or interested in athletics as men—in order for female athletes to feel welcomed and supported in sports.

All students deserve to reap the benefits of school athletics. The priority for school programs should be accessibility, not performance. Title IX is essential to granting equality in sports that cannot be achieved without legal safeguards to ensure that personal bias does not impede equality. Title IX is to thank for so much of the success women’s sports see today, and we must keep fighting to ensure that we keep moving towards fairness for all.