Never mind the gender gap in sports

The producers of the Title IX documentary “In the Game” Tweeted a link to this ESPN story over the weekend about the paucity of women in action sports. The headline, “Gender Gap,” sums up so much of the wrong-headed approach to gauging the progress of women in sports, especially in the mainstream media. Says writer Matt Higgins:

“According to Marie Case, managing director of Board-Trac, an action sports market research company, in 2010 there were about 18 million participants in the U.S. across skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing, 25 percent of whom were women. Of approximately 2.6 million surfers, 31.8 percent were female; of 6.7 million snowboarders, 24.2 percent were female; and of 8 million skaters, only 12.6 percent were female.

And then there’s this:

“Title IX, a law dating to 1972 that bars discrimination among programs that receive federal funding, has meant more opportunities for girls to play sports in school. But with action sports typically outside the scope of public schools and universities, opportunities for females are largely governed by the rules of the marketplace.”

Of course I wish there were more women in sports, politics, technology and international finance, for much more than the sake of representation. Our games, laws, gadgets and economy would be a hell of a lot better, fairer, easier to use and more inclusive than they are now.

But we’re so busy counting up numbers and determining percentages even in relatively new sports involving a post-Title IX generation of women and where gender equity laws do not apply that we overlook another major factor that is mentioned nowhere in this story.


That’s always been an important word for establishment feminists when it comes to a woman’s right to control her own body, a concept with which I strongly agree. But they never seem to consider it when it comes to examining why women don’t do certain things in greater numbers.

They may not want to.

Consider the example of competitive cheerleading, which is producing a bit of a split among women’s sports advocates and that The New York Times examined earlier this week in its continuing “Gender Games” series. Says Nancy Hogshead-Makar of the Women’s Sports Foundation:

“As long as it’s actually operating as a sport, we welcome it into the women’s sports tent.”

Which sounds fair enough. Then there’s former college basketball player Barbara Osborne, whom were told now advises college athletic departments as an “expert” on gender equity:

“What we consider sports are things that men have traditionally played.”

To be fair, Osborne said she wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea of counting cheerleading as a legitimate sport, but there remains quite a bit of reluctance.

Both women are quite eager to declare themselves authorities on what other women ought to aspire to athletically. Both could be more tolerant toward the individual courses that women are choosing for their lives thanks to Title IX. It’s a good law that needs to be kept on the books.

But Hogshead-Makar’s organization has been a stingy gatekeeper of a “women’s sports tent” that isn’t as expansive as it might be. And Osborne’s comment gives away the primary conceit of the gender equity establishment: That male-dominated fields should be the Promised Land for women to satisfy their ambitions, whether it’s sports or other educational or professional areas.

Cheerleading is such a hot topic because of the unending numbers game college athletic departments have to play in order to keep Title IX litigants at bay. As are the so-called “emerging sports” the NCAA suggests schools consider adding to get to proportionality but that don’t generate much interest from actual female athletes. Sand volleyball received a last-minute reprieve from being dropped from the NCAA list last year, but squash will soon get the axe. In August, the list will be down to just three sports — equestrian, rugby and sand volleyball.

(And I’m not the only female sportswriter who’s had a change of mind about cheerleading.)

The presumption that women would naturally be flocking to sports in the same numbers as men if only the “opportunities” were there is undercut by the first story in the Times series that revealed how men are counted as women in order to get the numbers right.

This desperation will continue as long as Title IX sports compliance remains tethered to a set of numbers that made sense 30 years ago, when women were in distinct minorities as students and athletes. That is no longer the case, as women are dominating undergraduate enrollment and even at big football schools are approaching or surpassing 50 percent of the athletes.

Here’s a better baseline for not only reworking the Title IX regulations but also rethinking what we mean by gender equity:

Celebrate the women who do choose to participate in sports and make it a big part of their lives, but respect and honor the choices of women who do not.

Never mind the gender gap. It’s not the truest measure of equality, but rather the most simplistic way of comparing men and women with the effect of perpetually dividing them.

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One Comment

  1. Burn
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Another great post that actually deals with reality instead of dogma.

    I think you should get together with Jessica Gavora and put together an industrial strength series of articles (or possibly a book) on the realities of Title IX. Her excellent book never did get the exposure it deserved when it was published back in 2003 and your real world experience would certainly add value to her updated perspective.

    ESPNW…are you listening out there??