Title IX and United States Female Sports Participation

Title IX is the most influential legislation ever passed in the United States with respect to female sport. Title IX is a freestanding section of the United States Civil Rights Act, passed by the United States Senate in 1975, with a built-in implementation date of 1978. Title IX has been the subject of considerable litigation, all of which has turned on the interpretation of the following fundamental statement of Title IX principles: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, to be denied benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal Assistance."

By definition, American professional sports leagues were exempt from Title IX. From the outset of the passage of the legislation, the notion of athletic equality between the sexes contemplated by Title IX was most prominently debated in the context of inter collegiate athletics, the largest part of which is governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which has over 1,000 institutions competing at three different competitive levels; a smaller number of schools are members of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). The issues concerning the usefulness and impact of Title IX remain most keenly felt at the NCAA level. It is to be noted that the NCAA, in its corporate capacity, is not liable for the actions of its member institutions concerning Title IX compliance; the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1999, in the case of National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Smith, as the NCAA only receives dues from some members that are recipients of federal funds and therefore these institutions would attract responsibility, the NCAA cannot be sued for any purported Title IX breach.

"Equal" in the context of the legal relationship between an academic institution and its male versus female athletic programs pursuant to Title IX has been determined to possess three distinct aspects in its meaning. The first meaning is equal in the number of athletic scholarships granted to women as opposed to men, proportionate to enrollment. The second branch of intercollegiate athletic program equality is equal participation in the sports offered at individual institutions, in both the total numbers of participants, as well as the number of opportunities, specialized athletic programs, and experiences available to female athletes. The third equality marker is that regarding the treatment and benefits available to female athletes at a given institution.

Further policy directives from the federal government in the period following the enactment of Title IX clarified the government position as to what precise measures would be expected of an educational institution to achieve compliance with Title IX; these directives have often included a number of specific examples. The key features of the federal government position regarding the specific components of Title IX compliance have both subjective and objective components. The first specific requirement is that an institution must have sports programs that accommodate both sexes. As an example, where a school prior to 1978 had a 90-member football team, a 15-member men's basketball team, a 20-member men's baseball team, and a 15-member men's volleyball team, the institution would be required to offer either the same sports to female athletes, or more commonly, offer female sports that permitted female participation proportionate to the total enrollment of women in the institution. A parallel expectation is the provision of the same quality of equipment and supplies to both male and female sports participants.

It is also expected that institutions will ensure that both men's and women's teams have similar competitive scheduling, as far as could be accommodated, both in terms of games scheduled and quality of competition. Further, female teams should have the same quality of travel arrangements as the men's teams, with similar arrangements for the per diem expenses for all athletes.

There exists an expectation of administrative equality as well. Both the athletic coaching as well as any related academic tutoring provided to scholarship athletes would be of an equal quality for both male and female athletes. The policies regarding the hiring, selection, or assignment of coaches to work with female teams would be equitable. The locker room facilities, practice fields or gymnasiums, and competitive facilities used by female athletes would be of the same quality as those used by male athletes. It was stressed by the federal government that Title IX assures that female athletes would have the same access to medical, rehabilitative, and training services as the male athletes at the institution. Equality of the quality of student athlete housing and dining facilities for female athletes to those of the male athletes was stressed. Lastly, when the institution publicized its athletic programs, the publicity generated would equally reflect the male and the female sports programs at the institution.

Raw participation data regarding female sports participation in the United States since the passage of Title IX confirms that there are far greater numbers of women active in sport that were participating prior to its enactment. A 2005 study confirmed that since 1975, there had been an 875% increase in sports participation levels in American female high school athletics, and a 435% increase in corresponding college athletics. ("College" is the American term used to describe all four-year, post-high school, degree-granting institutions, including those designated as colleges and universities. An American junior college is a two-year program institution).

The quality of play in women's sports has increased dramatically through the period in which Title IX has been in force. Female teams have full-time coaching staffs in many sports, with a corresponding attention to year-round training and fitness.

The same study revealed additional data that tends to suggest that Title IX's implicit purpose has not yet been achieved. While female athletes constitute over 45% of all student athletes (210,000 male athletes to 150,000 female athletes), only 37% of athletic scholarship monies and 33% of institutional expenses devoted to recruitment of prospective student athletes are directed towards female athletes. These figures become more starkly outlined when other demographic information is considered. As of 2006, female students represented approximately 55% of the general college student population in America. In addition, female student athletes had on average higher Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores (the SAT is prerequisite to college admission in the United States), as well as higher grade point averages upon graduation from high school than did male student athletes.

Some of the disparity between the expenses associated with each gender can be explained through the nature of the sports typically played by male and female NCAA athletes. In team sports, women compete in the greatest numbers in volleyball, basketball and soccer. Each of these sports is far less expensive a proposition than a sport such as football, where the cost to equip a single player may exceed $2,000; a typical NCAA Division I football team may have as many as 80 players.

The commercial issues surrounding Title IX are more difficult to incorporate into an analysis of whether Title IX has achieved its equality goals. NCAA-organized men's sports championships such as those in football and basketball are remarkably profitable events for both the NCAA and its member institutions. Each of these sports enjoys massive media coverage, supported by multi-billion dollar revenues generated by television. Female sports do not receive any comparable coverage, nor do they generate any significant commercial benefits for either the NCAA or the participating institutions. No matter what Title IX may dictate to any entities in receipt of federal monies, the marketplace, as reflected by consumer demands, has plainly stated that male sports are a far more profitable venture than those involving female athletes at the college level.

Critics of Title IX have repeatedly argued that the legislation is simply an effort to alter basic human nature. The impact of Title IX has also been felt in an ironic fashion: some traditional and non-revenue-producing male sports have been eliminated at a number of American colleges, to reduce the number of male teams or athletes, to create a more desirable ratio of male to female athletes without adding more female programs. Male sports such as wrestling, tennis, and gymnastics have been casualties of this approach to Title IX compliance since the 1980s.

An equal irony flowing from the substantial increase in the total number of female college athletes since the passage of Title IX is the well-documented upwards spiral in obesity rates among young people, accompanied by parallel increases in serious eating-related diseases such as diabetes. While greater-than-ever numbers of female athletes compete at an elite college level, there is no conclusive evidence that the overall health of American society has benefited.

One significant area of litigation has been with respect to equality of facilities available to female athletes in public high schools. A notable example was the action initiated by Alabama high school teacher and girls' basketball coach Roderick Jackson, who sued his school for wrongful dismissal in 2001, when he complained that the high school provided significantly inferior equipment and practice resources to his female team than those enjoyed by the boys' program. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Jackson was entitled to continue with his action, citing the need to protect those like Jackson, who was a whistleblower on a Title IX discrimination issue. There have been a number of successful Title IX actions initiated against local town and municipal governments over the quality of girls' municipal softball diamonds versus comparable boys' baseball facilities. Another common issue at the municipal sports level has been equality of access by girl's team and boy's teams to publicly owned facilities during the most desirable practice and games times. American courts have generally been sympathetic to Title IX claims advanced on these issues.

SEE ALSO Female exercise and cardiovascular health; Women and sports: Exercise data, goals, and guidelines.