This time of the year we have grown accustomed to the excitement of college basketball. The Men’s NCAA tournament has become a fixture of March in America. Increasingly, the women’s tournament has become a big TV draw too. Last year the women's college basketball title game between Mississippi State and South Carolina drew an audience of 3.8 million people, up 29% from the year before. This trend extends beyond women’s college basketball. Women’s sports have become way more popular across the board.
As popular as women’s sports are today, many people can still remember a time when that was not the case. In the not so distant past, women’s sports were relegated to the club and activity level in all but a few schools. If you were at a university in the 70s, you would be lucky to find an intramural team for girls basketball or softball. If you were REALLY lucky maybe even a club team.
So, how did we get from women’s sports being an afterthought to almost four million people watching a women’s championship game? Title IX.
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11375. This order was essentially a follow up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “Sex” or “Gender” was not among the categories included in the Civil Rights Act. Women’s advocacy groups pressured the government until eventually, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the executive order.
Executive Order 11375 essentially prohibits entities that take government money from discriminating on the basis of sex. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was charged with enforcing this order in higher education. They discovered huge disparities in hiring, pay, and promotion practices in higher education. The government addressed this in the Education Amendments of 1972. This piece of legislation includes a law called Title IX:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance… (Department of Labor)
These lines of legislation are the lines that covertly changed everything for women’s sports. Most people thought the bill only applied to basics like hiring and that was by design. Edith Green and Birch Bayh essentially concealed the broader effects of the bill. Green specifically kept public support for the bill under wraps as it made its way through Congress out of fear the support would reveal the true scope of its power. This wasn’t hard to do considering that Title IX never actually mentions sports. It was thought of as a bill simply to protect girls from discrimination. Once the bill was passed, the actual scope of the law was realized. The sports aspect of the bill wasn’t lost for long. It was a bill that protected girls from discrimination, and that included protection from discrimination in school-sponsored sports. Additionally, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare made it clear that Title IX applied to high schools too.
Several attempts to neuter the law ensued. First Texas Senator John Tower attempted to get an amendment passed that would exempt revenue sports from Title IX compliance. The NCAA then filed a lawsuit challenging the very nature of Title IX by attempting to claim athletic programs didn’t directly receive federal funds. Both of these attempts failed.
The government also clarified the three main ways schools should “test” whether institutions were Title IX compliant:
Proportionality: Girls should receive approximately the same percentage of athletic opportunity as the percentage of girls in the student body. Meaning if girls are 50% of the student body they should have about 50% of the athletic opportunities. This is why many colleges add a new sport for women at the same time they add a sport for men.
Progress: Schools must add new women’s sports regularly.
Satisfied Interests: Schools must satisfy interests of female students based on survey and regional popularity.
In the years since, courts have upheld and further defined critical aspects of the bill. Some of the more interesting rulings and clarifications dealing with Title IX are:
The fight and controversy over Title IX is not over. Betsy DeVos is attempting to depower some of the original pieces of the legislation in regard to sexual assault on college campuses. If she is successful ,expect sports programs to take another crack at getting out of complying with the regulations.
That being said, there is no question that Title IX, for all of it’s controversy, has been the single most impactful legislation for women’s sports. At the time Title IX was passed, only 15% of college athletes were women. That figure was even lower for high school at 7%. Such ratios are not even legal today. Gaps still remain and may remain for a while. However, if simply passing a law can take the NCAA from not even offering a women’s basketball champion in 1972, to having 3.8 million people watching it in 2017, it stands to reason that opportunity plays the most critical role in the progress of women’s sports.