Title IX: Law that opened sports to millions of girls and women turns 40

Congress passed and then President Richard Nixon signed Title IX in 1972, a 37-word amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Now 40 years old, it wasn’t intended for this, but athletic participation among girls and women nationwide has greatly increased ever since: 294,015 in 1972 to 3 million in 2011.

“It’s a law about educational opportunities,” not sports, noted Judith Sweet, a nationally know Title IX expert. She, Deborah Brake and Peg Brenden all spoke at the U-M Tucker Center’s spring distinguished lecture April 23 on “Title IX at 40: Changes, Challenges and Champions.”

Brenden as a St. Cloud Tech High School senior successfully sued her school the same year Title IX became law for the right to play tennis on the boys’ team since at the time there wasn’t a girls’ tennis team.

I asked Sweet, a former NCAA senior vice president (2001-06) and University of California, San Diego athletics director (1975-99), how Black females have fared from Title IX. “I wish I had the answer to that,” she admitted.

A January, 2012 National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) fact sheet says girls of color particularly receive far fewer opportunities to play sports than do boys: Less than two-thirds of Black girls play sports in elementary and secondary schools, but over three quarters of White girls do.

“The data on who benefited the most [from the law] have been disapportionately White women” especially in “country club sports” such as soccer and lacrosse, believes Brake, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and former NWLC senior counsel.

Before her April 18 speech on Title IX’s impact on her life at the University of Michigan, sponsored by the SHARP Center, I posed the same question to legendary basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer, the only woman college coach to take three different schools to Final Fours (Cheyney State, Iowa and Rutgers).

“If you want to say — Black and White women are thrown into the same category — women, did Black women benefit from Title IX? Yeah, but we didn’t have anything in the first place so how could we’ve not!” proclaimed Stringer, who talked about how she grew up “in a time when Title IX wasn’t even a word” in Edenborn, PA, a small town she calls “a patch [made up of] about four rows of houses.”

Stringer says she hated playing with dolls, but rather wanted to play sports. She painfully recalls when she tried playing baseball, but never made the team. “I was being denied an opportunity to play baseball because of my sex and not because of my performance,” she recalled. “That hurts.”

The longtime coach later attended Slippery Rock University on an academic scholarship — athletic scholarships were nonexistent for women at the time, says Stringer, who played basketball and field hockey. “I was always athletic,” she said proudly.

But she was constantly reminded, either subtly or right out loud, that she’d never be considered the same as a male. “[Men] could be anything they wanted to be, but look at the generations of women that never had the chance to be anything we want or [have] much of a future because there wasn’t a chance to get a [college] scholarship.”

The latest NCAA Race and Gender Demographics report shows that in 2010-11, the highest percentage of Black female athletes are in basketball (32.5 percent), bowling (35 percent), indoor track (20.7 percent) and outdoor track (20.9). Comparably, the highest numbers back in 1999-2000 were in basketball (22.4), indoor track (19.1) and outdoor track (19.2). However, these numbers still lag behind their White counterparts by large margins.

Furthermore, among Black female head coaches and administrators, two percent of women athletic directors are Black, 10 percent are women basketball head coaches, 12.3 percent are cross country coaches, 27.4 percent are indoor track coaches, and 27.8 percent are outdoor track head coaches. Meanwhile, White female head coaches’ and administrators’ percentages range anywhere from 75 percent to nearly 95 percent.

“But because [Title IX] doesn’t adequately address race, we still see disparities for people who live a life in a race body — be it Asian, Hispanic or African descent. When people talk about gender, they’re talking the White woman’s experience, but what about the Black female?” said Dr. Ketra Armstrong, a University of Michigan sport management professor.

“When you see Vivian Stringer,” she added, “you see the embodiment of what’s best about Title IX. [She] has navigated those boundaries.” The professor surmised that when people see Stringer in action, it’s “a vision of excellence.”

“You have to continue to fight for what’s right,” concluded Stringer. “I will always be a fighter — there always will be a need.”

Next week’s View will have more excerpts from our one-on-one interview with C. Vivian Stringer.

Photo: Title IX discussion panelists (l-r, 1st & 2nd) Deborah Brake, Judith Sweet and (4th) Peg Braden with (3rd) Nicole LaVoi of the Tucker Center (Photo by Charles Hallman)

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    Charles Hallman's picture
    Charles Hallman

    Charles Hallman writes regularly for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and blogs at Another View.