On June 23, 1972, forty-eight years ago, Title IX was signed into law as a part of the Education Amendments of 1972. The statute proclaims, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Title IX was—and still is—a “big deal.” In 1972, while 170,000 men participated in NCAA sports, only 30,000 women did. And, at the K-12 level, less than 300,000 girls played sports before the law’s passage; now over 3 million girls participate in athletics. A 1974 report discovered that although one large state school collected $68,000 in student fees for athletes, women’s teams only saw $5,000 of that money. Another university spent over $2.6 million annually on men’s athletics; the women’s teams received no funding at all. In short, before Title IX, female athletes had very few opportunities and support. We have come a long way in the last forty-eight years, but the fight towards equal rights for girls in sports continues.
At Legal Aid at Work, the Fair Play for Girls in Sports project focuses particularly on girls of color and girls who live in low-income communities to ensure equity among these underserved populations because girls of color encounter a variety of additional barriers to accessing fair play. Sixteen percent of K-12 public schools across the nation have over seventy-five percent students of color. This modern form of segregation produces a variety of resource inequalities, including in athletics. Forty percent of these heavily-minority schools have large gender inequality in their athletics; in comparison, only sixteen percent of heavily-white schools have these athletic inequalities.
It is unfair that girls, and particularly girls of color, do not have the same access to K-12 sports as their male counterparts. But, coupled with the information we know about the lifelong benefits of athletic involvement, these inequalities become even more pressing and unjust. Girls playing sports receive higher grades, have a lower dropout rate, and perform better in math and science. Female student athletes also receive health benefits, including decreased risk of heart disease, breast cancer, osteoporosis, tobacco and drug use, unwanted teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, depression, and suicide. Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan, even found that girls who play sports see long-term financial benefits; later in life, Stevenson found that girls who play sports make eight percent higher wages compared to their non-sport playing counterparts. Fair Play for Girls in Sports helps ensure that these women and girls aren’t left on the sidelines.
Today, as schools adjust to financial difficulties due to COVID-19, some colleges and universities have threatened to cut sports, including vitally important women’s sports. With dwindling budgets at K-12 schools and park and rec centers, girls’ activities might be the first things on the chopping block. However, these institutions must remember that financial difficulty does not supersede the national and state laws requiring gender equity in athletics; K-12 schools, colleges, and universities are always required to comply with Title IX, even when making cuts. In California, under AB 2404, park and recreation-hosted and -run sports are also required to create gender equity in their competitive sports offerings. Recently, a consortium of legal advocates wrote to Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Commissioner John Swofford to remind the ACC about their institutional obligation to uphold Title IX, but there is still a lot of advocacy and monitoring that needs to be done to ensure that gender equity is not overlooked and that girls are afforded equal access to the playing field.
As schools, colleges, and universities, as well as park and recreation programs, begin to open up, let’s make sure we keep athletic access equitable for all women and girls. For more information about Fair Play for Girls in Sports – including a recent settlement with Oakland Unified School District to address gender inequality in their interscholastic sports programs – visit our website.
*Tamar Alexanian is a law clerk at Legal Aid at Work and currently attends the University of Michigan Law School.