The elusive notion of gender equality in sports

This is the first in a series entitled “Women’s Sports Without Illusions” that will critically examine 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. The story behind this racquet, which symbolizes some seemingly conflicting thoughts and experiences I’ve had in women’s sports, also will be revealed.

All posts in this series can be found here.


Reading this unsigned editorial earlier this year in The New York Times prompted me to wonder anew — and yet again — about the meaning of a word that seems simple enough, but that has become fraught with confusion, contentiousness and ill will in the realm of women’s sports:


The University of California-Berkeley’s decision to reinstate three of five varsity sports that were initially dropped because of severe budget deficits is the latest in the long, continuing and often fractious history of Title IX compliance. As far as this anonymous Times editorial writer is concerned, as well as some others in the mainstream media, there’s only one side to this story: The alleged grievances of women being “denied” opportunities to compete because their participation numbers do not closely match the percentage of female undergraduate students.

As I re-read the brief commentary, I was struck not just by the lame, pop culture-influenced headline — “True Grit and Title IX” — but also by the implicit suggestion that no reasonable person could ever disagree with how gender equality in sports should be defined.

Yet players and coaches on the Cal baseball and men’s gymnastics teams had a very different perspective that was unaddressed, as was the fact that a vocal advocacy has existed for more than a decade that favors revising Title IX to curb unintended consequences against male athletes.

For the Times editorial writer, apparently, male athletes exist only in the abstract, as privileged creatures who stand on the exalted side of the elusive “gender gap” that must be closed in terms of statistical parity.

On Feb. 8 the Times revealed threats of Title IX lawsuits on behalf of athletes on the Cal women’s gymnastics and lacrosse teams. Those sports will be continued, along with the highly successful men’s rugby team, due to fundraising efforts. In an interesting twist, the Cal baseball team was given new life in April, with the aim of making a profit. Even more happily, the baseball team on Sunday qualified for the College World Series in what has to be one of the more gratifying sports stories of the year.

And yet . . .

“The march toward equality is long,” began another paragraph of the Times editorial, and it was here that my attention trailed off, as I jumped to an even more dubious conclusion:

“Thanks to Title IX, if something has to give, equality doesn’t go first.”

In other words, male athletes with no legal protections have to go when something has to give. Or, as in the case of Cal, the men’s teams have to raise money to pay their own way, while the women get their teams back by threatening legal action. This is what should not be ignored, especially by fair-minded advocates for women’s sports.

Defining equality down

But more than 30 years since the the three-part test for Title IX sports compliance came into being, we are are stuck with the reality, bolstered by the courts in such landmark cases as Cohen v. Brown, that “equality” is all about getting numbers right. The mandate according to proportionality, since Cohen the de facto letter of Title IX sports law, is to raise the percentage of female athletes to nearly match the percentage of undergraduate female students. At many colleges that’s a figure ranging between 55 and 60 percent.

And if this doesn’t happen, according to this line of thinking, then there still must be discrimination.

This is how the push to end sex bias in sports — a noble effort that I have always supported — evolved into a highly-charged, occasionally angry crusade oblivious to the individual choices women have made because Title IX has opened up a multitude of educational, vocational and extracurricular pursuits to them.

The law, which initially made no reference to sports, was passed by Congress in 1972 to lift the artificially low numbers ceiling on women students in male-dominated fields of study. How ironic it is that Title IX sports compliance, as well as the definition of gender equality in sports, has become beholden to numbers.

Indeed, as women continue to flock to colleges and universities, they have demonstrated that they will go undaunted where their interests lead them. With the exception of the STEM curriculum — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — women are at or above 50-50 parity with men across the academic spectrum. This includes medicine, business and law. Certainly there have been concerted pushes by colleges and universities to make educational programs more attractive to women, as the Wharton School of Business has demonstrated with its MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania.

What also has been clearly documented after these decades of dramatic progress is that the interests of women, both in the classroom and away from it, are far more wide-ranging than those of men.

This goes right to the heart of the trouble with defining, much less achieving, a universal notion of equality in the sex-segregated world of college athletics. While special measures also have been necessary to open the fields, courts, pools and other venues of sports to females, the three-part test, and especially the proportionality provision, places an artificial mandate on college athletic departments that may not necessarily coincide with the desires of female students.

It may have made more sense at the time to set some general and reasonable numerical goals, some “affirmative action,” if you will, given the lack of women’s teams and athletes.

That is no longer the case, and to presume that women are as interested in sports at the same rate in which they enroll in a school is absurd, even if that number is around 50-50. That the percentages are more skewed toward women has come at the expense of some unfortunate male athletes in sports that don’t produce revenues, don’t have strong constituencies and don’t have the law on their side.

It’s about more than Title IX

More importantly, this hardline view about Title IX has infected so much thinking and action about women in sports that goes beyond the issue of complying with the law.

The Cal story illustrates what I’ve felt for many years, that the simplistic ways in which equality for women in sports is defined and advocated is actually hurting the cause for women’s sports. While these pronouncements are nothing new, it’s also startling that nearly four decades after Title IX, we haven’t allowed for a more nuanced and open-ended public debate that incorporates more than one strident point of view.

We’re saddled with outdated regulations, rhetoric and assumptions that come straight out of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was in college and women were in the minority on most campuses. We inhabit a very different world, and for women athletes now it’s a far better world.

As a pre-Title IX youth athlete who supports the law but advocates changes in how it is enforced, I’m devoting daily posts over the next two weeks detailing how the women’s sports movement lost its way, and what a future for female athletes might look like if we can ever get beyond the current manifestations of Title IX, a seemingly endless caravan of litigation and some of the noxious cultural wars over gender and sports that have resulted.

Coming Tuesday: Why women’s sports advocates ignore the individual choices of women who don’t go for sports, all in the name of equality.


Women’s Sports Without Illusions: The Series.

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  1. Posted June 13, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your candor, thoughtfulness and insight on a subject the politicians who make these laws actually know very little about — college sports. The loud lobbying of a few very organized women’s groups is all those inside the Beltway hear.

  2. Posted June 27, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Howdy! Do you know if they make any plugins to protect
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