Fifty years ago, a federal civil rights law was passed: Title IX. This law prohibits sex discrimination in all educational institutions (colleges or schools), programs, or activities that receive federal fundings. In other words, Title IX states that "no person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any academic, extracurricular, research, occupational training, or other education program or activity operated by a recipient which receives Federal financial assistance". On Title IX's 50th anniversary, we're reflecting on how this law changed sports as we know and love them today.
As it is written, the law does not specifically mention the words sports, athletes, or any similar synonyms/phrases. It was initially intended to address educational gender discrimination and inequalities. Although in the 1970s, more women graduated high school than men (50% women vs 48% men in America), only 8% of women obtained a college degree. Women had a harder time getting into colleges because some schools established quotas that limited female students enrollment, some required women to have higher high school grades than men, or even limited what courses women could take. The number of women in sports was even lower. In 1972, only 2% of the college athletic budget was for female athletes and athletic scholarships were nonexistent. Only 300,000 girls and women played high school or college sports in the U.S.
Since athletic programs are also considered educational activities or programs, this law gave female athletes their right for equal sports opportunities and participation in all educational institutions (from elementary to schools to universities) that receive any Federal funds. Federal funds are common for almost all public and private colleges and universities as well as few private elementary, middle, or high schools. Slowly, Title IX became like a booster shot for female athlete equality. On one hand, more girls and females started participating in sports, and on another hand, more institutions and programs started implement this law for sports. By 2012, more than 3 million girls participated in high school sports alone and more than 190,000 women competed in intercollegiate sports. By 2016, 1 in every 5 girls played sports in the United States. Compared to the 1970s, only 1 in every 37 girls played sports. In the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and for the very first time, more U.S. female olympians participated than men with 292 women vs 263 men.
In February of 2022, the U.S. Women's National Soccer team finally won the 6-year long debate of lawsuits and lobbying with the U.S. Soccer Federation. The U.S. women's soccer team is the number one team in the world with a history of Olympic gold medals and FIFA World Cup championships, yet they were paid less than the men's team. Whereas the men's team barely made it to the top 15 teams worldwide and hasn't always qualified for the World Cup. A part of the latest terms of agreement, the Soccer Federation will equalize pay between the women's and men's national teams in terms of same pay and prize money for all competitions (including the World Cup). This is a big win for women's soccer and women's sports in general as more countries follow the lead with new equal pay agreements. On June 14th 2022, the Spanish Football Federation announced a new five-year agreement that will provide the female national team soccer players with the same bonuses as the male national team. However, this ultramarathon pursuit of equality still has a long way to go, because in reality, women’s sports had decades of catching up to do.
While the NBA was founded in 1946 and FIFA in 1904, the WNBA was founded 50 years later in 1996 and the women’s World Cup started in 1991. Women have almost 100 years of catching up to do, but this doesn’t have to take 100 years to happen. It’s going to take more than just equal funding for athletic programs and leagues to improve equality in sports - there needs to be a change in attitudes and perceptions. Old and offensive stereotypes about women or female athletes are still part of many cultures.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, there would still be unequal access to sports even if all athletic budgets were equal for men and women at every school in America. Girls usually have 82% of the sports opportunities that boys have at majority-white schools with an even lower percentage, 67%, at schools with the majority are students of color. This can be partly attributed to the fact that sports institutions and organizations offer higher rates of athletic opportunities to males than female athletes. According to a report published by the Women’s Sports Foundation, “86% of NCAA institutions across all divisions offered higher rates of athletic opportunities to male athletes disproportionate to their enrollment. For the 2019-20 academic year, that gap favoring male athletes represented 58,913 missed opportunities for female athletes”. Race is also a major contributing factor for inequality in women’s sport. Economic inequalities and limited resources of school districts exist in many communities of color thus making it difficult for women to focus on education, let alone sports.
Title IX does not state that there should be a decrease in male athletes’ opportunities or fundings so that there is an increase in female athletes’ opportunities or fundings - organizations and institutions can make sure opportunities coexist for both men and women. It’s still the beginning of the journey for girls and females all over the world, as better and equal opportunities arise from sports organizations and federations to make sports more accessible. There is so much more that still needs to be done and it’s on the sports fans, media, federations, and sports organizations to put in the effort. Fans can support female athletes or women’s sports by attending their games, watching them on TV, or following them on social media. Media and journalists need to avoid using sexist language or innuendos that belittle female athletes. Sports Federations need to develop gender equity policies to ensure that women doing the exact same work should get equal opportunities, fundings, wages, and benefits as the men - both athletes and sport staff. Sports organizations have to show equal and fair support to both their female teams/athletes and male teams/ athletes as well as hire more female sports executives and coaches.
Not to mention the influence of sponsors and big brands on the sports industry. The majority of women’s sports are underfunded - with only 0.4% of all sports sponsorships in 2020 accounted for women’s sports. Sponsorship can help drive awareness to women’s sports and ultimately reach new audiences, thus creating a domino effect of more media coverage, more sponsorship, and eventually more funding. The lack of sponsorship has a huge impact on female athletes’ income as a big part of athletes’ income is due to commercial income. This then creates the notion of women’s sport being less profitable than men's sport.
Although Title IX was not just about sports, this law changed women’s world of sport forever - but this is just the beginning of a long road to sports equity. Contrary to stereotypes and once popular beliefs: Women can be athletes, coaches, or sport organization presidents. Women’s teams can make money - sometimes more than men’s teams. Women can be whoever they chose to be, play whatever sport they want, and be able to make decisions that affect future generations of female athletes. It’s up to us to make sure women have the opportunity and resources to become professional athletes, coaches, or any other decision maker in the sports industry.