Front and Center: Title IX Turns 50, But Still Not Done Growing

Title IX was an important step in creating a level playing field in sports, but equity still has a ways to go, Melanie Schwimmer ’23 argues.

Front and Center: Title IX Turns 50, But Still Not Done Growing
Title IX was an important step in creating a level playing field in sports, but equity still has a ways to go, Melanie Schwimmer '23 argues. Photo courtesy of Amherst Athletics. 

When the editors of the sports section asked me to write about Title IX 50 years later for this homecoming issue, I did not know how to start. On paper, the act does not mention athletics at all, but in practice, Title IX is primarily associated with gender equity in sports. I assumed they wanted me to celebrate the new opportunities for women, and it is true that female participation in college athletics has skyrocketed since its passage. A few years prior to the act’s passage, only 15,000 women participated in college athletics — from the recreational to the elite level. Fifty years later, over 200,000 women play sports across all divisions of the NCAA alone, including hundreds of women at Amherst. Increased participation of women in athletics helps challenge traditionally held stereotypes about gender divides and the ability of women, and Title IX helped facilitate these opportunities. But, while participation is one thing — and an important one at that — experience is another.

The primary author of Title IX as we know it was Representative Patsy T. Mink of Hawaii, the first woman of color in the House of Representatives. Mink was a vocal advocate for the rights of women of color in particular. As written, Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex, and 1964’s Tile VI prohibits discrimination based on race in educational environments. No such law currently exists that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. These laws are blind to the intersection of race and sex and are completely ignorant of sexuality all together. As Kimberé Crenshaw argues, the missing intersectionality of race and gender in laws leaves women of color largely unprotected.

While it is true that many women gained increased opportunities, when looking at who benefited from Title IX, it is essential to examine the demographics of those new female athletes. And as it turns out, Title IX heavily benefits wealthy white women over women of color. Currently, only 14 percent of female collegiate athletes across the divisions of the NCAA are women of color. In comparison, as of 2021, 32.7 percent of male collegiate athletes were men of color. Even in sports where Black women are often hyper-visible, such as collegiate basketball, the percentage of Black women in these sports has actually declined over the past ten years, from 30 to 28 percent. Outside of basketball and track, Black women made up only 7.8 percent of female collegiate athletes in 2021. And Latina, AAPI, and Indigenous women’s participation in collegiate sport remains heavily understudied.

In terms of socioeconomic class, a longitudinal study of 7,810 college-bound students showed that among the wealthiest students, 23 percent of high school seniors that participated in varsity athletics went on to play college sports compared to only 9 percent of students from the poorest families. Wealthy students often have the luxury of not working in high school, and thus have more time for sport. They can also pay for travel teams and college identification camps, allowing for increased exposure to college coaches. Some travel sports cost over $1,000 annually and can easily enter into five figures. And, due to the parity expectations from Title IX, universities and colleges must balance their athletes by gender. The female sports that universities most often use to balance out their massive football teams — field hockey, rowing, and beach volleyball, for example — are often dominated by wealthy white women.

In addition to providing opportunities to white women, Title IX inadvertently advanced the careers of male coaches at the expense of their female counterparts. Before the act was passed, women coached more than 90 percent of women’s collegiate teams. Five years after the act, that number plummeted to 58.2 percent, and today, fewer than 50 percent of women’s teams are coached by women. Sports historian Victoria Jackson explains that male athletic directors could be to blame, hiring who they knew for the newly created roles. Male assistant coaches were more willing to step into head coaching jobs of these new teams once Title IX dictated essentially equal pay for both positions. She adds that “part of this was, ironically, a fear that coaches were lesbians, and that they were predatory, [but they were] never thinking that male coaches might be abusive or predatory, of course.”

One of the biggest forces fighting against Title IX in the 1970s were not sexist people trying to defend male sports, but the female leaders of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), the organization that governed women’s collegiate sports before the act. The AIAW had 1,300 women in leadership roles in 1972, who “envisioned a model of intercollegiate athletics that accepted the desirability of organized competition, but rejected the commercialization rampant in men’s sports.”

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how the captalization of sports helped create the current state of women’s soccer, one that is fundamentally based upon networks of sexual and emotional abuse. The reason that Britney Griener went to Russia — where she is currently wrongfully detained — was to help supplement her WNBA salary because, as an eight-time all-star and one of the best players in the league, she only makes approximately 20 percent of some NBA rookies while playing in the U.S. Perhaps the NCAA should have adopted the AIAW model for all collegiate athletics rather than the current model employed when taking over women’s sports.

At Amherst, the college has made some strides to increase racial diversity on our athletics rosters and present more opportunities for female coaches and administrators. For example, two male teams (cross country and golf) have female head coaches and our rosters are slowly becoming more diverse. Diversity is an important step, but as Aidan Park ’22 argued at the Council of Amherst College Student-Athletes of Color (CACSAC) Walk Out of Practice Protest last fall, “diversity without inclusivity is irresponsible.” We saw this ring true my freshman year when three members of men’s lacrosse chanted the n-word outside of their Black teammate's suite in 2020.

As of 2018, 79 percent of NESCAC athletes and 65 percent of Ivy League athIetes were white. When our rosters are full of students from elite prep schools and top public high schools, is it possible that our sports recruiting practices have become affirmative action for the white and wealthy? If the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action in college admissions in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina, how will Amherst athletics and those at our peer institutions serve as a place to further cement the whiteness of our institution?

We must start writing intersectional acts and demanding intersectionality in practice to ensure that advances for women do not simply mean advances for white women. As Title IX turns fifty, we can acknowledge and celebrate the hard-fought battles by people like Representative Mink and other trailblazers in women’s sports, while also remembering that we have lots of unfinished business.

Front and Center would like to conclude by calling attention to the fact that Britney Griner has been wrongfully detained in Russia for 253 days. Bring her home.