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.