One of Title IX’s most significant triumphs in the last 50 years has been the soaring number of women competing in high school sports. The number of women in sports grew more than tenfold, from 294,015 in the 1971-72 school year to 3.4 million in 2019, according to a Women’s Sports Foundation study. At a collegiate level, the number has ballooned from 30,000 five decades ago to over 200,000.
On the other hand, quantitative growth and the improved ratio of men to women active in high school and college athletics haven’t always translated to gender equality. The apathy toward enforcing Title IX is evident throughout collegiate sports. During the 2021 NCAA Tournament, women’s basketball teams in Iowa for the women’s tournament bubble discovered scattered dumbbells and yoga mats made available to them, while the men’s tourney in Indianapolis had access to extravagantly designed weight rooms.
It was the most glaring example of disregard for Title IX policies at the highest levels. However, a recent USA Today study found that the 10 teams from public universities that made it to this year’s men’s and women’s Elite Eight spent $14.2 million — or 67 percent — more on their men’s teams than their women’s teams over the two seasons.
The generation of women who lived through Title IX’s passage and implementation have witnessed both the promise and its shortcomings. The student athletes who competed at the high school level and earned scholarships that would otherwise have been non-existent used that as a catapult to careers in sports outside its playing fields.
Melissa Isaacson, who previously covered the Jordan-Pippen era Chicago Bulls in her decades-long sports reporting career, was also one of the early beneficiaries of Title IX — Isaacson started high school in 1975, against the backdrop of its advent. By her senior year, she was a member of Illinois’ third women’s state championship team.
“It’s no coincidence that the stats say that over 80 percent of the C-Suite executive women played team sports. Those stats tell us that it did make a difference. I know for me that it made a difference. It was being given all the tools that little boys have been given for so long that teach them to be successful adults. And then you’re taught to be leaders or you’re a really good follower or team member,” Isaacson told Deadspin.
Isaacson added. “All these life skills that help you become successful men and we did not get that as little girls, my generation, until junior high and high school and then all of a sudden we were like ‘oh, that’s what they were talking about.’ And it was so great. It gave us confidence to think that someone like me could walk into an NFL locker room, walk into an NBA locker room to enter a profession that’s dominated by men. The idea that anything was possible at that time, that feeling absolutely sent us charging into our futures.”
Despite the advancements for women that Title IX has shepherded, Isaacson considers the 50th anniversary to be a milestone on the choppy road to gender parity. It also disheartened her over how many more gender issues she expected to be resolved are still bubbling up today.
“It’s important to use the occasion to look at how far we have not come and how far we have to go,” Isaacson told Deadspin from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, where she is now a lecturer.
“There are women who fought in the trenches during Title IX times like [former Iowa women’s athletics director] Dr. Christine Grant, she was very heartbroken that all these years later we were still talking about these issues.”
For instance, compliance violations are ignored regularly.
“We don’t have Title IX police running around. It’s one of the few laws where there are people violating it, but can just promise to do better and we are OK,” Isaacson said.
The passage of Title IX was the genesis of a bevy of collegiate women’s athlete careers. It also spawned a litany of women’s professional leagues that are still in their nascent phases. The NWSL, WNBA and Premier Hockey Federation all feed from a talent pool that Title IX produced. Women’s soccer, basketball and softball have grown immensely thanks to the resources afforded to women’s athletic programs. However, even America’s most accomplished female athletes are shortchanged in other ways that Title IX doesn’t have the range to address.
“If you would have said to us as 17, 18 year-olds, ‘hey, in 40 years, there will be 100s of thousands of men, women and children packing stadiums across the United States rooting for a women’s soccer team’ what would you say?” Isaacson asked rhetorically. “We would have been like, well of course. Are you kidding? When we’re almost 60? And I’m gonna be coach of the Bulls, and my friend Connie’s gonna be GM and Shirley’s gonna own the team. And then if you would have said to us, yes, but in 30, 45 years, all those 100s of thousands of fans are gonna be chanting ‘equal pay, equal pay,’ then what would you say?
We would have been devastated.”
In 2019, Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw sounded exasperated, telling ThinkProgress, “People are hiring too many men.”
In 2022, it’s remarkable that a woman has never been head coach at a Division I hoops program and there isn’t even a single active assistant coach on the bench for a Division I program. Yet, more than half of all women’s teams are coached by men. The AIAW, which governed women’s college sports before the passage of Title IX, was put out to pasture when the NCAA began offering women’s national championships.
Title IX gave women a chance, but sports’ patriarchal culture and its institutions have resisted the entire way leaving women, and predominantly minority women, pushing a boulder up a hill. There are no easy solutions. Title IX was merely a tool for women to hack away at the power structure. The resistance is fading at a quickening pace, but there’s still a long way to go.