Title IX’s Impact on Youth Sports:
Remembrances on “Women’s Equality Day”
By Doug Abrams
As social forces swept the nation in early 1971, Congress passed a joint resolution designating August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day” each year. That was the date in 1920 when the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was formally adopted into the federal Constitution.
Earlier this week, I noticed a sports commentary about Women’s Equality Day in the Hansconian, a small newspaper published in Concord, Massachusetts. The writer invited adults to assess one facet of equality, “the differences in athletic opportunities for your children today as compared to your time while in school.” “A major aspect of that change,” the writer correctly noted, was Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
The differences in athletic opportunities are indeed striking and worth remembering. When I was in high school in the late 1960s, community and interscholastic athletic programs routinely shortchanged girls and frequently overlooked them entirely. Girls could cheer for the boys’ teams or watch the boys’ games from the stands. Girls could play a handful of sports such as field hockey or girls’ basketball under often sub-standard conditions, and suffer ridicule for being tomboys if they sought to taste “boys’ sports.” I do not recall any local voices ever urging that girls deserved more than the meager piece of the pie that they received.
In 1971, just months before Congress passed Title IX, one commentator cited the inequities stemming from “[s]tereotypes, prejudices, and misconceptions [that] have served to curtail the participation of females in vigorous, competitive physical activities for too many years.” The commentator concluded that “[f]or most females, the avoidance of all participation in physical activities becomes the easiest route to follow.” Gender stereotyping, added a prominent sports sociologist, had “clearly specified sports as a male province. The intrusion of women [was] seen as frivolous, distracting, or downright annoying.”
Today millions of girls play alongside boys in community youth leagues, and girls’ interscholastic athletic programs hold prominence unknown before passage of Title IX. Lawsuits and social controversy sometimes mark application of Title IX in particular cases, and barriers to girls’ full participation remain. Few responsible voices, however, question the general right of girls to share the playing field, either on girls’ teams or with the boys.
A Better Country
As most readers of this column know, Title IX and its administrative regulations prohibit gender discrimination in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” in elementary or secondary schools or higher education. Covered programs include interscholastic sports.
Title IX does not apply directly to private community youth sports leagues, which are not “educational programs” and receive no federal funding. The ethic of gender equity, however, influences these community leagues. Since 1975, about ten million girls have played Little League baseball, and millions of other girls have played other sports with boys, particularly in the pre-teen years when physiological differences between the sexes are negligible.
Almost every year, girls played on mid-Missouri youth hockey teams that I coached. Sometimes the girls were more talented than many of the boys, and sometimes not. But nobody ever batted an eyelash when girls skated onto the ice because, to a generation accustomed to Title IX and other societal changes, the girls belonged, just as the boys did.
By helping to level the playing field in sports for the female half of the population, Title IX has made the United States a better country. The rest of this column discusses two major national advances attributable to more equitable participation in youth sports – improved public health and more wholesome childhood socialization.
Improved Public Health
By dramatically increasing rates of girls’ participation in sports in an increasing sedentary age when an obesity epidemic afflicts growing numbers of children, Title IX has proved to be one of the most effective public health measures passed by Congress in the second half of the twentieth century.
In 2001, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher warned that among adults and children alike, “overweight and obesity . . . have reached epidemic proportions in the United States.” Thirteen percent of children and adolescents were overweight, and the number of overweight adolescents had tripled since 1980. Overweight and obesity both qualify, said Dr. Satcher, as “major public health concerns” because they can lead to increased rates of coronary heart disease, diabetes, several forms of cancer, and other chronic health conditions.
National trends continue moving in the wrong direction today. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that approximately 17% of children over the age of two (about 12.5 million children) are now obese. With this sobering recipe for ill health, a 2012 study published in Pediatrics (the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) measured the potentially positive effects of various forms of physical exercise, including active commuting to school (such as by walking or biking), regular participation in school physical education classes, and participation in team sports.
The Pediatrics researchers found that “[t]eam sports participation had the strongest and most consistent inverse association with weight status.” The study estimated that overweight and obesity would “decrease by 11% and 26% respectively, if adolescents played on at least 2 sports teams per year.” The researchers’ recommendation? “Obesity prevention programs should consider strategies to increase team sport participation among all students.”
“All” means “all.” The benefits of a lifestyle rich in physical activity and competitive sports inure to all children who wish to play, and not only to boys.
Linking cause and effect can be an inexact science, of course. There is no guarantee that a youngster denied an opportunity to play organized sports will become sedentary or obese, or that a youngster prone to a sedentary lifestyle or obesity will benefit from playing sports. But intuition suggests that the nation’s pediatric obesity epidemic would be even more serious today if Title IX had not moved millions of girls off the sidelines into the active participation they desire.
More Wholesome Childhood Socialization
Title IX’s benefits transcend physical health and well-being. In a nation that believes that athletic competition teaches children valuable life lessons, community youth sports programs hold special potential to help shape children’s attitudes about gender roles in a society in which unprecedented numbers of women pursue higher education, enter the work force, and remain on the job throughout their personal and professional lives.
Sports is a prime engine for early attitude formation. About 30 million children join at least one organized sports program each year, and nearly all children experience organized sports at some time before turning 18. Outside the home and schools, no other activity reaches so many children, and no other activity enables so many boys and girls to cooperate to pursue common goals.
Behavioralists and child psychologists continue to debate the relative capacities of biology and social environment to influence the development of children’s attitudes about gender roles. But these professionals generally agree that nature and nurture can each affect socialization because gender roles are flexible and capable of modification during childhood and adolescence. Title IX helps facilitate this development and modification by enabling girls and boys to play alongside one another in community youth sports programs from coast to coast.
The President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports & Nutrition recommends that “[g]irls and boys need to work and play together, starting at an early age” because “[t]he social construction of gender begins in early childhood perhaps as early as infancy, as children respon[d] to cues from parents, teachers and others.” Little League and other community youth sports programs are typically conducted outside the schools by private associations or clubs, or by public parks and recreation departments. The capacity of these athletic programs to influence early childhood socialization can be significant because, according to the President’s Council, “[g]ender segregation—the separation of girls and boys in friendships and casual encounters—is central to daily life in elementary schools.”
In 2012, Sports Illustrated was right that “Title IX’s impact has reached well beyond the playing field, forever changing the role of women in society.” Indeed, Title IX has become almost synonymous with gender equity generally in the past four decades. As a national symbol that has aroused public sensibility, the federal mandate has achieved a social impact well beyond the four corners of its statutory language and implementing regulations, which apply only to academic programs in elementary, secondary, and higher education. That impact, beginning in sports for millions of children, is worth remembering on “Women’s Equality Day” and throughout the year.
[Sources: Devon Messecar, Women’s Equality Day: Title IX, Hansconian, Aug. 16, 2013, p. 6; Dorothy V. Harris, The Sportswoman in Our Society, in Sports and American Society: Selected Readings, pp. 310-11 (George H. Sage ed., 2d ed. 1974); Howard L. Nixon II, Sport and Social Organization, pp. 49–50 (1976); Kelli Anderson, The Power of Play, Sports Illustrated, May 7, 2012, p. 44–45; U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General (1996); President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Physical Activity & Sport in the Lives of Girls: Physical and Mental Health Dimensions from an Interdisciplinary Approach, pp. 14–16 (1997)]