Cynthia Brown is the vice president for Education Policy at the Center for American Progress.
In 1978, I was the deputy director of the Office for Civil Rights in President Carter's Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and as such I was sent on a university tour for a crash course on athletic scholarships and NCAA rules. I was gathering information about gender equity in college sports.
The trip was fascinating. I was wined and dined by university presidents at each stop—Ohio State, Stanford, Duke, UCLA, and the University of Maryland. But when I visited the University of Richmond in 1978 and asked to meet with the woman athletic director, I wasn't allowed. Only in the quiet stalls of the women's bathroom could she tell me the truth: While the male athletes were treated like kings, women's athletics at the university were barely existent.
Today, moments like this one are history. In the 34 years since I was charged with developing the Title IX intercollegiate athletics policy, we have seen a dramatic shift in the conversation about gender equity in sports, education, and the workplace. Having recently marked the 40th anniversary of Title IX, we should celebrate the progress that's been made, but we should also take the opportunity to reflect on how to confront the many limitations women still face on and off the playing fields.
We might still encounter men's athletic facilities that look like palaces in comparison to the women's, but we have also seen a 545 percent increase in female participation in college athletics since 1972, and a 979 percent increase in female participation in high school sports. These gains are credited by one study for causing a 10 percent increase in women working full time and 12 percent spike in women choosing traditionally male-dominated career paths.
Despite the remarkable expansion of women's high school and college sports, girls have not yet reached the participation level today in high school athletics that boys had achieved in 1972. In the last decade, boys' participation in both high school and collegiate sports has actually risen at a higher rate than girls'.
And no, this imbalance cannot be explained away by the misconception that girls are simply less interested in sports. The participation difference exists because men are still being afforded significantly greater opportunities. There are 3.1 million girls who play high school sports, but there are less than 200,000 collegiate athletic opportunities for women. At a university participating in Division I athletics, if a 10 percent difference exists between male and female athletic participation, it is not because the school lacks an additional one or two female teams, but because there are about 160 more opportunities for males to participate in athletics.
Athletic directors and administrators often hide this sobering reality behind the fact that equivalent male and female teams (tennis, track and field, soccer, etc.) receive proportional funding, claiming that with football out of the equation men and women have equal athletic opportunities. But as award-winning sports journalist Christine Brennan put it at an event last week, "under the law of the United States I don't think we have three genders yet: men, women, and football players." Title IX includes football as a part of the equation, yet on the law's 40th anniversary many athletic programs in high schools, colleges, and universities are still in violation of Title IX's requirements.
One way to address these funding and opportunity inequities is to change the way we talk about gender equity in athletics. Although the numbers say that the expansion of women's sports has never come at the expense of male athletic participation, people continue to discuss changes in high school and collegiate athletics in terms of a blame game. As football budgets eat up the funds of other men's sports, we hear people saying things like "Oh, it's Title IX's fault." If the boys' ice hockey team has to be at the rink at 5:30 a.m. because the girls' team has the rink right after school, instead of saying that Title IX is to blame, we should say that it's to Title IX's credit that fair play is enforced.
The challenges that continue today for women athletes today speak to larger inequities that women still face. Yes, Title IX revolutionized women's participation, but women in this nation still make 77 cents to every dollar men make. On the anniversary of a law about fairness, we should remember that while we're running toward the end zone, we haven't completed the touchdown. We must continue to work every day to overcome the obstacles that still face women in sports, and to address issues of pay equity, equal access to health care for women, and family-friendly workplace policies. Fair play goes further than the field or the arena—it applies to our economic, social, and political systems as well.
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Corrected on 06/27/2012: A previous version of this article misstated when the author began developing the Title IX intercollegiate athletics policy. She began work on the policy 34 years ago.