Recapturing the intent and true spirit of Title IX

This is the ninth in a series entitled “Women’s Sports Without Illusions” that critically examines the nearly four decades of the women’s sports movement, including Title IX, cultural and social developments, the growth of professional and international women’s sports and current challenges and issues.

All posts in this series can be found here.


Today is a day to celebrate. As it should be.

As Title IX enters its 40th year, and with another 12 months of buildup until another milestone, we will be hearing a lot more of what we’ve been hearing about the law from all the usual suspects.

The individuals and organizations I have examined here will be undeterred in sticking to their talking points, all of which have been examined in this series.

While I do believe that many of these people do believe what they say, they’re also smart to keep the charge in their rhetoric. It furthers their advocacy, and helps them accrue brownie points in their careers as professional feminists.

A subversion of the law

Latest example: University of Pittsburgh law professor Deborah Brake, author of the recent book “Getting in the Game: Title IX and the Women’s Sports Revolution.” Formerly a staff attorney at the National Women’s Law Center (a charter member of The Sisterhood), Brake promises readers what she claims to be the first legal analysis of the law as it pertains to sports. More than anything, she serves up warmed-over diatribes about the patriarchy, and gives away her true aim — adding sports to the realm of “feminist legal theory” — almost from the start:

“It is time to move gender equality in this area to a more central place in a feminist agenda.”

This book is not really about sports at all. As the following passages reveal, for Brake the story of female athleticism is an abstract to serve a much more holy purpose. Not only that, but she actually disdains everything that Title IX was meant to be when Congress passed it 39 years ago today. To her, the law hardly goes far enough, because men still rule the roost in sports. A few dreadful examples:

“Unfortunately, Title IX’s approach to gender equality has made no serious attempt to expand the range of masculinities sports constructs, and it has failed to disrupt sport’s linkage to hegemonic masculinity.”

“Degendering sports is an important part of securing sex equality in sports.”

“For the most part, schools have done little to change a sports culture that links hetero-masculinity to athleticism.”

“The law has been less successful at reigning in the privileges of elite men’s college sports.”

And then there is this:

“. . . Title IX’s utter lack of success in challenging the culture of heterosexual male privilege that pervades men’s sports.”

And so it goes on like this, for 230 bloody, mind-numbing pages.This was not Mariah Burton Nelson writing in 1994, but rather a law professor in 2010.

Brake is less a Title IX legal scholar than an ideologue. But you wouldn’t know it judging from uncritical interviews on a higher education website and NPR’s acclaimed “Only a Game” program when her book was published.

Not only do Brake and her like-minded sisters I’ve profiled here give women’s sports a bad name. They also marginalize them more effectively than any hegemonic masculinist ever did.

The temptation to fight the past

For nearly three decades, Jack Fertig was as a men’s assistant basketball coach at a number of universities, including Tennessee, where he became an early and still-avid admirer of Pat Summitt. At USC, he was fond of Trojan basketball great Cheryl Miller, who served as head coach in the mid-1990s and became a pariah in her own sport when she succeeded Marianne Stanley, who was fighting and later lost an equal pay battle in federal court.

Fertig also served on Fresno State’s athletics gender equity committee while on Jerry Tarkanian’s staff in the last decade, during one of the nastiest Title IX disputes in recent memory. In a recent blog post, Fertig, now a public speaker and teacher in Fresno, recalled those memories while watching his current high school’s girls softball team, and wondered what the landscape for women’s sports might be like today had females not been held back for so long. He appreciates the historical march women have made in sports, and like a lot of men of his time, has regrets about the past.

But then there’s his frank closing passage:

“There is no argument that the female gender was hindered by the lack of opportunity and, certainly, the women’s rights movement hastened justice in that area. Now that women are afforded the chance to compete, whether it be in the athletic field, medical field or, simply, at the ballot box, there are some women who aren’t – and never will be – satisfied. They are bound and determined to ‘make up for the past.’

“I was in a coaches’ meeting once when the director of athletics posed the following question to a female coach, ‘Would you rather see the football team win so we make more money and everybody’s budget is increased or would you rather everybody’s budget be cut?’ Without hesitation, she chose the latter. Later, when a foolish, vengeful proposal was brought up, one of the men coaches said, ‘That would screw the men’s sports.’ The same miserable female coach retorted, ‘Good. We got it for 20 years; now it’s your turn.’

“If you guessed the meeting took place at Fresno State, you wouldn’t be too far off. Fighting for a just cause is noble. Continuing to be – I coined the term, a contrarian – does nothing but cause ill will and becomes a divisive force helping no one but the ego of the contrarian.

“It’s truly a shame women weren’t offered identical chances men were at the same time nor does it make sense. As the popular Virginia Slims commercial told the world, though, women have come a long way, baby. Unfortunately, there are those who feel they haven’t won unless someone else has lost. Since we’re all members of the same ‘team,’ it would behoove us to work together constructively rather than destructively.”

(If you think Fertig is tough toward some of the women he dealt with at Fresno State, check out his assessment of Nick Saban during the latter’s one season as Toledo football coach, where Fertig also worked. “Alpha dog” and “Big Kahuna” are among the more charitable descriptions he has for the current Alabama coach.)

One of the most troublesome issues I have with establishment sports feminism is its zeal to allow the past to influence the present, as if we were still in that past. Because of this, there also is little contemplation of the future. What Fertig has written here is something he and I discussed at length last summer when we first became acquainted.

He’s also making a crucial distinction between the need to identify and eradicate true discrimination and the doggedness of some women’s sports advocates who feel the need to fight every grievance, real or perceived, to the death. This is a distinction that has been long lost on the likes of Deborah Brake, Donna Lopiano, Erin Buzuvis, Mary Jo Kane, Mariah Burton Nelson, et al. Their fanaticism is cemented, even though they will continue to be regarded as authorities on Title IX when they’re cited by the mainstream media.

Yet Fertig is closer to appreciating the true spirit of Title IX than any of them.

In perhaps the only true sentence of her book, Brake just glosses over it:

“Title IX’s biggest success, and its most revolutionary impact in term of producing cultural transformation, is the huge increase in the number of girls who grow up playing organized sports, with many of them continuing to do so into adulthood.”

That’s all the law was meant to do.

Title IX was never meant to be an end unto itself, a self-perpetuating mechanism commanded by those who have mastered the legal process and are adept in connecting with the media, and for those who have made it a creed, an article of faith, and even a belief system.

It was, and is, a vehicle for those girls and women who encounter legal obstacles to gain equal access to educational and sports opportunities. It’s up to them to take advantage of those opportunities (or not), and it has been their continuous and growing participation that has changed the culture, as Brake mentions, and not the male-bashing, utopian notions of jargon-spouting academic feminists like her trying to boost their professional bona fides.

If Title IX and women’s sports are to continue to thrive, the law needs a new compliance framework for sports and the “movement” needs some new leaders. Because both Title IX as it is enforced now and some of its most vocal adherents are worn out and have nothing new to offer.

Coming Friday: In the concluding post of this series, I finally explain what the racquet pictured above is all about, and why I’ve found it necessary to make all the racket about women’s sports. This might be more personal than I planned, but what I’ve learned from writing this series, and exchanging thoughts and ideas with readers, has been a revelation.

Women’s Sports Without Illusions: The Series.

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  1. Matt Zemek
    Posted June 23, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink


    A question: Are the social evils manifested by the larger sports industry the kinds of evils that are fully/substantially disconnected from testosterone-drenched inclinations? Phrased differently, how much is the reality of sports – as a pervasive, consuming industry, not as a game or a diversion (or a healthy outlet for youth exercise/participation) – due to male power versus the dynamics of power, economics, etc.?

    Much of your series has clearly articulated how The Sisterhood has crossed various lines and taken arguments/causes too far. Something to think about as we all continue to wrestle with these interlocking issues is to identify the thresholds/liminal spaces where male overrepresentation in places of power ceases to be a cause/driver of problems, and larger forces of economics/media/law begin to be more central.

    Separating men-caused problems (which have obviously existed in the past) from systemic/structural factors (so pervasive in the present moment) is essential. When that act of sifting runs its course, people on the front lines of this issue can then identify what’s a real problem and what’s an old, worn, reflexive ideological argument no longer based on reality. Sport has perpetuated patriarchy to some extent – Augusta National, for instance – but in many cases, it’s not true. Coming up with ways to separate fact from myth with respect to patriarchy’s role in creating sports-industry problems would seem to be a top priority for anyone trying to educate a mass audience on women’s sports.

    You’ve deftly identified the gross excesses and severe ideological flights of militancy on the part of The Sisterhood. What’s the middle ground, the place where claims of patriarchal abuse have *some* degree of truth (while being much less than the full story or the final say on an issue)?

  2. Steve H
    Posted June 23, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    People might be surprised that those of us who have battled for a more reasoned approach to title ix that isn’t quota driven also have daughters! My observations of my daughter’s experience growing up are that a sport is a natural part of development for both males and females, at least where we live. While the WSF would hate this analogy, it seems more common now for the Captains of the football and girls’ soccer teams to be name Homecoming King and Queen.

    As I mentioned in an earlier post, my daughter played on a fairly high level youth travel lacrosse team up until high school. A couple of years into high school she chose to stop playing. Hard to argue with her when she graduated with a 4.67 weighted GPA….. I thoroughly enjoyed my daughter’s competitive time. Even though she doesn’t play she did ask us to bring her stick with us when we visited her last month in Germany during her semester there. Sport can still serve as a bridge to others, despite national origin.

    I see the current generation of athletes at the University of Maryland support each other, regardless of gender, at their various competitions. The ACC Wrestling Championships were held at the University of Virginia on a Saturday this past season. Maryland’s Women’s Lacrosse team was playing at UVA on Friday night and most of the wrestlers were in attendance as the athletes on both teams are friends.

    We’re now into perhaps the third generation since the passage of title ix. It met its primary purpose long ago. The WSF’s claims that there would be losses of women’s opportunities if title ix went away are empty. Today’s parents aren’t going to allow the elimination of opportunities for their daughters and they shouldn’t have to stand by helplessly as their son’s are denied opportunities to compete. The Fresno State passage was interesting since they eliminated their very successful wrestling program and added a women’s lacrosse program that has had next to no success.

    Eliminating the current application of gender quotas enforced by the OCR would go a long way to saving opportunities for males and I strongly believe this would allow growth for women that isn’t also constrained by quotas but driven by interest.

  3. Burn
    Posted June 23, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Exactly! Wendy is the first woman that I know of with credible, real world sports experience to speak Truth to Power on this issue in a public forum. She understands the gender feminists for what they are really are. They see men and “The Patriarchy” as the enemy and regardless of how much progress they make in women’s sports they will never be satisfied because it was never really about sports to begin with. It was about trying to change the world using sports as the medium.

    Most people just don’t get this. They think that if they “keep trying” to do more for women’s athletics the gender feminists will be satisfied. They couldn’t be more wrong. Each victory and step in real world progress for women’s sport is just seen as a springboard to an even higher, more punitive gender feminist objective. Once people figure out that these folks won’t be happy until they are totally in control they’ll be prepared to deal with the types of people that Wendy calls out in this post. Until then nothing will change.

    The delayed approval of cheerleading as a Title IX sport is a good example of this mindset. Any objective person who is familiar with athletics knows that women who compete in true competitive cheerleading are most certainly athletes. The real reason that the gender feminists in the Title IX power structure don’t want it approved is that they see cheerleading as an activity that supports the patriarchy and as such it doesn’t matter how athletic it’s participants are or how much of a sport it obviously is, they will not support it because it isn’t consistent with their worldview. The quotes are out there. Take a look.

    One of the real misfortunes of this situation is that there are numerous gender feminist professors in academia, many being supported by taxpayer dollars that spend most of their time doing work to support their political agenda instead of using all of their impressive post-secondary degrees to truly help girl and women athletes. Wendy mentioned the fact that many of these women have PhDs in fields like kinesiology. The most heartbreaking example of this travesty is the lack of real world attention the epidemic of ACL injuries that women’s athletes incur have been receiving. The reason it doesn’t get attention from these doctors of kinesiology is that they don’t want to admit to the fact that multiple studies have confirmed that women athletes incur serious ACL injuries at a rate of two to eight times more frequently than male athletes. Admitting that this is a fact and trying to help fix it wouldn’t be consistent with their social constructionist views on gender. So they ignore it and instead focus on studies that support their political agenda while the real world problem of women tearing up their knees just continues on. If you are interested in the types of studies these women are doing check out their work and that of their graduate students sometime. Start with The Tucker Center at the University of Minnesota.

  4. Posted June 24, 2011 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    Well stated, Steve H. As the father to three daughters, all of whom participated in sports in junior high and high school, you’re right. No parent would let it return to where it was.

    Back in the 1990’s I had thought Title IX might just result in the then-powerful College Football Association leading a charge for football programs to leave college athletic departments entirely, become club teams semi-affiliated with their schools, and let the rest sink or swim. It seems sanity has prevailed, if you can call the BCS and the billions of TV rights dollars flying about “sane”.

    What’s kind of scary to me is my wish, even now, that they had done it.

    The professional lobby that lingers like pigeons on Title IX’s Government-Greek facade exists partly on the strength of the relative health of college sports, growing through irrigation made possible by all sorts of fresh new streams of media revenue.

    Reflected glory is still giving The Sisters a tan, which is a real shame. The money would be nowhere near where it is now and — perish the thought — proportionality would have been reached by most athletic departments without those 85 male scholarships! Now what?!

    Really, it’s good this never happened. As a matter of fact, the opposite is occurring and it has nothing to do with the WSF or any other lobby. The sheer magnitude of what the Pac-12’s new TV deal will bring to all of those schools in terms of competitive salaries, facilities, scholarships, recruiting budgets and more means the Pac-12 could be the dominant league in all sports outside of football and men’s basketball, with a particular bump for its women’s sports. If you’re the best and you’re drawing from a more limited pool of participants than the two big, well-played sports, it stands to reason you’ll be heads and shoulders above everyone else. Oh, but I forgot — “participation” is a nasty word and an even nastier metric.

    It’s a shame The Sisters won’t see the rising tide lifting all boats, only that one boat displaces more than the others. What a bitter existence, forcing yourself not to notice what you claim to have been working for come to be, just so you can continue to work for it!

  5. Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks again for all your comments. I barely scratched the surface in mentioning what drives the academic sports feminists; there’s so much more out there that makes me wonder what’s going on in the halls of academia. People get paid to crank out this stuff?

    The new Pac 12 media contract is unbelievable, and I think it will be a boon for men’s and women’s non-revenue sports. For what it’s worth, commissioner Larry Scott, a former director of the Women’s Tennis Association, has stated he thinks women’s basketball ought to try to be self-sustaining.

    I think that’s a long shot, but I’d love to see some of these conferences and schools market that sport a lot better than they do now. Given the resources, coaching salaries and TV exposure, it’s worth a shot.