Women’s sports and the matter of choice

This is the second 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.


When I was 13 or 14, I did something I never thought I would ever do.

I quit playing sports.

This was the mid-1970s, before I’d ever heard of something called Title IX, and just as Billie Jean King was lighting a fire in me (the racquet above has her name on it) and many other young girls who were thrilled to play slow-pitch softball and six-on-six basketball because that’s all we had.

It was more than enough, until it wasn’t.

At the very moment in which women’s sports broke through the surface of American culture, I decided that I was done playing. For the rest of my high school years, I deeply regretted doing this, almost to the point of depression.

Zealots might be quick to point out that given the lack of options at the time, it was understandable that I would give up. I was being held back by sexists, apparently, and antiquated rules.

Except that I wasn’t. Frankly, I couldn’t hit a softball thrown under slow-pitch rules, and in basketball I was a short guard who couldn’t shoot, even after being freed from the defensive side of the halfcourt line. When I tried out for my high school basketball team after a couple of years away from the game, I blew a layup with a rare chance to touch the ball. I wasn’t just rusty; I was bad.

Instead, I covered that team for my high school paper, and my college’s women’s team and on from there as a professional journalist. Playing was a thrill while it lasted, but reading and writing and evolving into an inveterate history geek and aspiring journalist surpassed everything else.

My days as an athlete ended here, but never the passion that inspired them.

My days as an athlete ended here, but never the passions that inspired them.

Can I interest you in something?

All along I’ve believed that my wavering interests are not that unusual, for females of my generation and for those who have come after me.

The familiar, comfortable narrative spun by women’s sports activists has been that females are just as interested in playing sports as men. It’s social attitudes that have prevented this seemingly organic “equality” from taking place.

I do think that held some more truth when I was younger and women’s sports at the collegiate level were still in the early stages of development. But as girls and women continued to make their participation in sports so common as to be unremarkable, the stridency of the activists became increasingly defensive. What I knew in my own experience was being hotly denied by women who claimed to be speaking for people like me.

One of the tests for Title IX sports compliance is for college and university athletic departments to “accommodate the interests and abilities” of female athletes. But the Title IX establishment actively resists having those interests surveyed in any serious manner. This hot-button issue was triggered anew during the deliberations of a Title IX commission created by the George W. Bush White House.

In 2002, I covered the first commission hearing in Atlanta, and like a later meeting in Washington, tempers nearly flared over the subject of interest. Three years later, the Bush administration issued a “policy clarification” that allowed schools to conduct an interest survey to meet that test.

Bush officials erred in making it almost too easy for schools to put a compliance stamp on their gender equity efforts. Instead of making a case for incorporating interest as a factor in the Title IX equation and fostering a discussion about what I’ve tried to examine here, the Bush policy clarification predictably backfired.

Still, the feminist orthodoxy went into a rage, when not indulging in raw hyperbole about having Title IX examined at all.

When the Obama administration took office in 2009, that clarification was reversed, and one of the three ways to measure Title IX compliance was effectively neutered. How can college athletic departments “accommodate the interests and abilities” of female students if they can’t find out what those interests might be?

The activists say only that they don’t trust the results of surveys that could get caught in an e-mail spam filter. That’s a cop-out, for they have never suggested improving the methodology of a survey, nor its retrieval options.

It might be seen as a bait-and-switch, but I suspect they fear women students may not tell them what they want to hear, that not enough of them may be as prone to playing sports and back up the untested creed about equal interest. For what it’s worth, I think male and female students should be surveyed for sports interest, but women’s groups might be even more wary of that data.

The vanilla gender ideal

In her 2008 book “The Sexual Paradox,” Canadian psychologist and columnist Susan Pinker interviewed high-achieving North American women in such fields as the law and the hard sciences and found many of them, at mid-career, lacking the desire to carry on. Some expressed an obligation to please others, or to adhere to feminist pleas to invade strongly male-dominated professions. Some of her subjects, in fact, gave up tenured professorships and executive posts to teach grade-school children and other lower-paid, lower-profile work that nonetheless offered immense gratification:

“. . . women can now have what men have, but many decide after trying it that they don’t want it. The vanilla gender idea that every given opportunity they should want it, if that’s what men choose, hinges on the assumption that male is the default against which we measure everyone’s wants and dreams.”

The wrong kind of feminist activism has been to push women toward this ideal of “sameness,” and we are seeing this in sports as well. While I loved playing sports, and prided myself in knocking down barriers and even “taking on” the boys, ultimately that wasn’t my greatest passion.

One leading women’s sports legal advocate contends that the Title IX statute and its sports regulations are part of the problem. University of Baltimore law professor Dionne Koller calls this “the interest paradox,” and provocatively claims that the current sports participation model predicated on Title IX is a “male” model that does not invite female “assimilation.” It’s a suggestion I’ll take up in a later post, as Koller’s argument essentially makes the case for the non-commercialized vision of the Association for Women in Intercollegiate Athletics (plenty more on this tomorrow) and college athletic reformers.

Women’s advocates have long accused men resistant to the changes brought about by Title IX as “dinosaurs,” and certainly there has been plenty of retrograde thinking and action to tackle. It’s not over by a longshot, but the common assumptions women’s advocates make and the straw men they invent to perpetuate their party line have become stale.

Coming Wednesday: Some of the biggest dinosaurs standing in the way of women’s progress in sports have been women.


Women’s Sports Without Illusions: The Series.

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  1. Matt Zemek
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink


    There are questions lurking at every turn, but future installments of this series might very well fill in the blanks.

    Perhaps the foremost question I can ask right now is if groups like the Knight Commission or (occasionally-convened) student-athlete panels or – perhaps most importantly – the upcoming August gathering of university presidents/chancellors are going to incorporate surveys of male and female athletes into the discussions that are part of holistic college sports reform.

    One would indeed like to think that if Title IX has three components, the college sports industrial complex would be able to not only arrive at clear definitions of those components, but make said components reflect the actual attitudes of the full population of athletes across gender and the full range of sports themselves.

  2. Rena Stover
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I think you have a valid point when the discussion comes to women’s interest to compete on the collegiate level.
    My daughters high school team won league all 4 years she competed and went to the CIF championship her senior. That tem was full of talented young women who had played baskbetball since they were 6 or 7 years old. Of the 5 who graduated in 2007, not one went on to play in college. And 3 had legitimate opportunitites to do so. The class behind them, not one wanted to continue to play. And that pattern actually began with the 2-3 prior to my daughters class.

  3. Posted June 14, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Matt, I don’t think the Knight Commission can have any effect on this, and I don’t think the NCAA wants to touch Title IX in the least. The NCAA is fully on board with the Title IX establishment and has been since the NCAA Gender Equity Task Force recommended in 1993 that proportionality become the compliance ideal.

    Neither do I think there is any political will in Washington to change the three-part test. The Bush commission was formed when the White House and Congress were in Republican hands, and even then nothing substantial came out of it beyond the policy clarification. Nobody wants to raise the ire of women’s groups or look like they’re opposing women’s progress.

    Title IX as it stands now, with a couple of decades of case law behind it, has become a third rail issue. I don’t expect this to change.

    Rena, thanks for sharing that about your daughter’s team. A lot of kids — boys and girls — play sports, only to gravitate toward something else. They learn to play musical instruments, only to give that up, etc., etc.

    My only aim in addressing the interest issue with regards to girls and sports is to illustrate that there are more reasons for the lack of equal numbers than what we’ve been accustomed to hearing.

    Other factors need to be openly considered, but it’s hard to get them introduced into what has become a one-way conversation.