Thinking about Title IX on National Girls and Women in Sports Day

Today is February 1, which marks the 26th annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day.  (Jeez, that is a mouthful!)  The day was organized by the National Association for Women and Girls in Sport in an attempt to celebrate women and girls who play sports.

The day takes on a bit of an extra meaning this year, as 2012 is the fortieth anniversary of the passage of Title IX.  Now, lest you think that Title IX was only good for killing boys’ wrestling programs and replacing them with girls’ Bulgarian dart-throwing, it’s worth remembering that Title IX governs all educational activities and programs that get federal money.

Keep that in mind the next time someone goes off about Title IX and how it needs to be repealed or changed or otherwise dismantled.   It’s not just about sports.

But you also can’t deny the impact Title IX had on the athletic landscape in schools all across the country.  For years, huge amounts of money and focus were poured into boys’ sports, the assumption being that girls weren’t interested or that they weren’t suited for sports.  And if you did manage to buck the overwhelming social pressure to express interest in sports, you were pretty much on your own.

Take Shalane Flanagan’s mom, Cheryl Treworgy (formerly Cheryl Bridges, when she held the record in the women’s marathon).  When Treworgy ran cross-country in college, she was the entire women’s team.  There were no facilities for her, so after meets, she changed in bathrooms and “showered” in sinks.   That’s what pre-Title IX life was like for the few women who pursued athletics.  No teams, no facilities, no institutional support.  Fortunately for Treworgy, her male teammates were supportive of her.  Can you imagine how much more difficult it would have been if she’d had to fight against them, too?

When I started playing team sports in school, it was about twenty-five years after the passage of Title IX.  We had teams, uniforms, coaches, locker rooms.  The idea of a high school without a single girls’ athletic team was just unthinkable.  Girls’ athletics were an integral part of my suburban childhood.  We played soccer and softball in city-sponsored leagues, every junior high and high school had a choice of teams, and club sports were becoming more and more popular.

This is how completely non-controversial girls’ sports were – my church organized intramural sports seasons for teenage girls.  I was raised Mormon in Utah, and we played sports.

Sports may not have been for everyone – plenty of kids were into drama or FFA or the math team or smoking cigarettes behind the Hutchins Memorial Auditorium – but it was sure nice to have it as an option.

Even so, I still remember seeing a few things that struck me as less-than-fair, things that told me we had a little ways to go before girls sports were taken as seriously as boys sports.  When I moved to Oklahoma and started playing high school volleyball, I noticed that we were put in the older of the two field houses – the one without air conditioning.  That doesn’t sound so bad right now, but go spend three hours running around a swampy building in Oklahoma in August and once you catch your breath and mop your body off, tell me how you feel.  There were reasons for this, I was told – the new air-conditioned field house wasn’t equipped to handle volleyball nets.  I supposed I could see this, but it didn’t mean I liked it.

But then my senior year, the team qualified for the state championships.  I had assumed this might merit getting to take the football team’s cushy charter bus, but no.  We drove to Oklahoma City and back in a rattle-trap school bus with windows that whistled the entire two-hours drive on the highway. I’ll confess, I found it odd that the boys’ football team – which by the way, wasn’t exactly burning up the scoreboard – had a charter bus and that we were not allowed to use it, even for a trip to the state championships.

It’s all minor stuff, really, and none of it prevented us from actually playing, but it shows you where we sat on the totem pole in terms of high-school sports.  And after all, this was small-town Oklahoma, where high-school football is rivaled only by Jesus in terms of sheer devotion inspired by its followers.  This is true even if the high-school football team in question is terrible.  In this context, girls volleyball usually occupies the same rung of esteem as Zoroastrianism.

My point is not to complain about less-than-spectacular accommodations, but rather to show that the need for some sort of leveling-out of opportunities has not vanished over four decades.  We can argue over the exact ways in which that leveling-out is implemented, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it is still needed.  I’m sorry to say that there are still a lot of people in this country who would happily give every cent of a school’s athletic budget to football teams while leaving sports like girls’ soccer and volleyball to scrabble for leftovers.  It’s just that now they have the good sense not to talk about it in terms of dudely supremacy and instead dress it up as if it is purely a matter of economics.

So if you are looking for a way to support women and girls in sport, here are a few ideas:

  • Sign a petition asking Congress to support the High School Athletics Accountability Act
  • Attend a girls or women’s sporting event.  I know the WPS is suspending its 2012 season, but there are loads of other professional, semi-pro and collegiate women’s leagues out there, too!
  • Watch women’s sporting events on television.  My husband digs watching women’s college basketball, and we both really enjoy women’s college volleyball.
  • Support local leagues and teams.  If you ever wanted to play soccer or get involved with a running club, there’s no time like now to get involved.
  • Write a blog post like this and post it on Twitter with the hashtag #NGWSD.

You can also stay up on the latest legal challenges faced by Title IX at Title IX Blog.

Edited to add: I wanted to bring attention to this beautiful post by Lize Brittin at Training on Empty.  In it she writes:

In the end, when asked why sports are important to women or young girls, I have to answer in a way that points out the movement forward in women’s rights. That has always been a part of the reason why I run and partly why my dedication to the sport is so strong. Long before I became a successful athlete, running gave me a voice against the people in my life who had taken advantage, put me down or abused me in some way. Running was my way out of feeling helpless. It gave me the backbone to stand up for myself, and I believe that any sport has the potential to do this.


2 responses to “Thinking about Title IX on National Girls and Women in Sports Day

  1. “it gave me the backbone to stand up for myself, and I believe that any sport has the potential to do this”

    YES from over here too. I love seeing my daughter’s confidence and assertiveness grow as she gets into hockey and cross country. She is only 8 years old and sure of herself in a lot of ways that have taken me many more years to learn. I think her participation in sport is a huge part of this!

    • Sports can be like getting a booster shot of confidence at an early age. (Provided you are not horrible at it. For some ladies it can be a real self-esteem crusher.) There’s something about knowing your body can be useful in terms of DOING and not just for being SEEN that has almost an innoculative effect on a person’s self-image.

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