Stretching the boundaries of Title IX

As promised, espnW this week rolled out “The Power of IX,” its special section devoted to the law that revolutionized women’s sports in America and that turns 40 in June.

As expected, the site is attractive visually and has a compelling mix of stories, photos, videos and other multimedia content.

The material is overwhelmingly positive in tone, celebrating the achievements of women athletes who’ve benefitted from the sports opportunities and the changes in cultural attitudes that the law has provided.

A disclaimer that you may not hear much about as this section grows over the next few months: espnW has designated the Women’s Sports Foundation as its official charity. A lengthy story about the espnW Title IX initiative in The Buffalo News over the weekend did not mention this, and I suspect the reporter did not know that.

You can find this disclaimer on the espnW about page, but it really doesn’t say much. On The Power of IX homepage, you can link easily to the WSF site and make a donation.

I point this out not to be the skunk at the garden party, although it appears I will be. However, a lot of journalistic firepower is going into this project. writer Bonnie D. Ford has written about playing basketball during the early years of Title IX. It provides a valuable history lesson, not just for those of us who remember the days of pinnies and six-on-six rules, but especially for those who know nothing but female basketball the way it is played and seen, today.

Former Sports Illustrated luminary Steve Wulf, in the centerpiece of Tuesday’s launch, wrote eloquently about how the law was passed, and what it’s meant to so many women. Today, we have Katie Couric chiming in about the life-changing powers of Title IX.

The law, and its legacy, have become virtually impossible to view in any other way than how the doyennes of Title IX, and their inheritors, have framed it. In wondering if the lines between journalism and advocacy are being blurred, here’s my own disclaimer:

I’m a journalist who’s written about women’s sports for the better part of two decades but who’s critical of some aspects of Title IX activism. (I’ve written here at length about why Title IX’s sports compliance three-part test is antiquated and needs to be replaced with a new framework for enforcement.)

From the early 1990s on, it has unfairly displaced some male athletes and places an illogical emphasis on equality by numbers that flouts the intent and spirit of the 1972 statute. To paraphrase others, Title IX is a good law with a bad interpretation.

This is an important distinction that has been ignored by Title IX activists for far too long, and I’ll be curious if espnW addresses it at all.

In my initial reading of The Power of IX, nearly everything related to women’s sports is made into a Title IX issue, even if it really doesn’t apply. The “Sizzling Sibling Rivalries” tab features a photo of Venus and Serena Williams, who never played college tennis. A story on betting in women’s sports focuses on the WNBA, which does feature college-produced players but has existed for 15 years because of the financial generosity of the NBA.

Also new is a video interview with U.S. soccer stars Julie Foudy (a former Women’s Sports Foundation president) and Kristine Lilly about Title IX. There’s no mention of accelerated development in elite youth soccer organizations that have nothing to do with Title IX. Lilly and the legendary Mia Hamm, in fact, made the national team before ever suiting up at North Carolina.

I understand espnW is trying to tap into a female audience with everything it does, and the tales of uplifting, inspiring experiences of athletic females go a long way toward serving this audience.

Not everything about women’s sports is attributable to Title IX. Other important factors, like youth sports leagues, for-profit sports business entities and revenue-producing college sports, are conveniently left out. Football in particular continues to be blamed for the slow progress of women in sports. In fact, the most successful women’s college sports teams — including those you will see at the Women’s Final Four this weekend — tend to be at schools where the loathed but lucrative “King Football” thrives.

While football has plenty of its own problems — I think the Penn State scandal may be the ugliest episode in the history of American sports — it is not the enemy of women in sports.

The espnW package offers the opportunity to clarify all this. But the euphoria over Title IX has created an easy catchall category for women’s sports that glosses over important issues I fear are going to be missed.

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