Title IX: Barriers remain to achieve equity in sports
The lack of Black female head coaches and national calls to ban transgender female athletes from women's athletics are just two of many barriers standing in the way of equity across sports. Because of these barriers, has Title IX worked?
ROCHESTER — Dawn Staley made history this spring when she became the first Black college head coach to win two national championships.
Man or woman, Staley is alone in that honor thanks to the title the University of South Carolina women's basketball team took home on April 3, 2022, in Minneapolis.
Staley’s accolades don’t end there. She’s also a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, a six-time WNBA All-Star, a Hall of Fame player and coach, a four-time Olympic gold medalist as a player and coach and five-time SEC Coach of the Year.
She also is one of the few Black female head women’s basketball coaches.
In December, the NCAA reported a total of 73 Black female head coaches of women’s basketball – making up just under 21% of women’s basketball head coaches. On Division I rosters, 2,237, or 44%, of women’s basketball players are Black.
“I’m very aware of what my success represents. I’m also very aware of what my failure would represent. Black women in coaching positions are held to higher standards – especially because there are so few opportunities,” Staley wrote in a 2018 The Players’ Tribune article called "Where Are All the Black Coaches?" “Yet this is a sport mostly played by Black women. So how do we change that? How do we get more Black people – especially women – in head coaching positions?
“How can our sport reflect back to young Black girls what they see in the mirror?”
The number of Black female head coaches has increased over the past five years, but the slow change is rooted in the structure of the NCAA and extends to what many refer to as the unintended consequences of Title IX.
“After Title IX was passed, the percentage of women in sport leadership plummeted,” said Nicole LaVoi, the director of the Tucker Center at the University of Minnesota. “Women’s sport used to be run by women in the AIAW and in the early days of the NCAA. Now, men have basically gotten the opportunity to fill those positions and that has remained stagnant.”
That’s because a second unintended consequence is that Title IX provided a dual career pathway for men in sports, meaning “they could coach and administrate men and women, and women were pigeon-holed into only coaching and administrating women’s sport, and then they do that at less than half the time,” LaVoi said.
“It’s about power,” she said. “Sport is a social institution that has been created by and for men, that privileges men. When women came into that space, men took over.”
Seeing women in leadership positions allows girls to imagine themselves in the same position, as Staley referred to in her story. When women aren’t in head coaching roles, girls inevitably don’t consider a future in coaching. The opportunity doesn’t seem to be there.
Meghan Orgeman recently became the president of the Minnesota Track and Field Coaches Association – the first woman ever. The Alexandria Area High School girls head track coach knows from experience how imperative representation is.
“A lot of times, I'm the only woman in the space, and it's just a different dynamic to navigate, and it's like walking a tightrope where you have to be careful to not be too strong or too weak and you don't want to come off as bitchy or soft, so it's that double bind, that tightrope walk that you have to do just to be respected within the role,” she said. “I really am a strong believer of if you can see her, you can be her.”
Her runners are buying into that as well. They look up to Orgeman, calling her “moach”: mom plus coach. The athletes respect her for being a friend and mentor, while also pushing them out of their comfort zone in order to grow.
And, because of Orgeman’s personal experience with being one of the only female coaches in the room, she is using her role to recruit the next generation.
“We obviously still have a problem. We obviously still have some work to do. Our girls obviously aren't seeing as many female leaders as they're seeing male leaders, and that's where we have to try to grow,” Orgeman said. “I talked to my girls all the time about becoming coaches someday, how it's the greatest, greatest job on Earth. So (I'm) hoping that they'll step up when they get that chance.”
The lack of female coaches is just one barrier that bars women from equal access and equal opportunity in sports. Another barrier is one that’s taken the nation by storm. It’s the eligibility of transgender females to participate in women’s sports.
The argument by many Republican lawmakers to ban transgender women and girls from women's sports takes a nuanced, complicated argument and turns it into a hot-button, black-and-white issue.
A gray area
Since 2020, lawmakers nationwide have introduced bills with similar calls to “save women’s sports.” Eighteen states have enacted a law or issued an executive order that bar or limit transgender women and girls from participating in female sports. (Some of these bans are halted because of ongoing litigation.) Minnesota does not have a state law barring transgender participation.
LaVoi called the issue of transgender athlete participation a gray area and a question that “is highly contested.”
“But right now, with the lack of concrete scientific evidence, you've got one end of people that are definitely saying transgender athletes should be excluded from sport, hard stop. And over here, you've got transgender athletes should be able to compete with whatever gender they identify with full inclusion, and a lot of in between,” she said. “So how this plays out in the court of public opinion, legally, ethically, what's fair, what's right, what's moral, what can be enforced – I mean, there's so many aspects to this. It's very complicated.”
Jennifer Winter, the chair of Rochester Pride, pointed out that the NCAA amended its position on transgender athletes to be on a sport-by-sport basis, rather than a rule that applies across the board, partially because the association realized the complexity of the question at hand.
“A lot of the data shows that (transgender athletes) don't have an increased advantage. It's really complicated,” she said. “I think it's a nuanced issue. And I think wanting to make these sorts of broad bans just ignores the reality of the actual nuance of the issue.”
Legally, there isn’t a federal precedent to cover transgender athletes. The Biden administration clarified the language of Title IX to include discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, but the Supreme Court hasn’t heard a case to yet rule on the coverage of Title IX.
"It's really just this fighting tooth and nail, race to the bottom to make the lives of transgender people just as miserable as possible."
“When the word sex appears in an anti-discrimination law, that includes transgender people, and the court’s reasoning would be the same reasoning as it would be in Title IX – you can't really discriminate against a transgender person and have that not be discrimination based on sex,” said Jess Braverman, the legal director for Gender Justice, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that strives for gender equity.
The Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment also protects transgender athletes, according to Braverman.
In Minnesota, the state discrimination law expressly protects transgender people. Because of that, “we would argue that discrimination against athletes is prohibited here,” Braverman said.
Proponents of a transgender athlete ban point to successful, elite college or professional athletes to argue why a ban is necessary. Athletes like University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, Harvard University swimmer Schuyler Bailar and Franklin Pierce University runner CeCé Telfer became targets of those who support barring transgender athletes from competition.
“Focusing on one elite athlete is going to grab the headlines, but really what we're talking about is kids being able to play middle school volleyball with their friends,” Winter said. “And when you look at it from that viewpoint, it seems like an incredibly cruel thing to exclude these kids from being able to participate with their peers.”
Braverman describes transgender athlete bans in states as “problems in search of problems” because “these bills are not solutions to anything.”
“The reason behind them is obviously not to save or help protect girls sports because you see in states like Minnesota, where we have trans-inclusive sports, girls participation rates are actually really high,” she said. “This has nothing to do with saving sports. This has nothing to do with women athletes. It's really just this fighting tooth and nail, race to the bottom to make the lives of transgender people just as miserable as possible. It's really destabilizing for a lot of people.”
Has Title IX worked?
The accessibility of sports for girls has significantly increased since 1972. There are still plenty of shortcomings and barriers that exist – more than just the previous two mentioned.
First, it’s important to recognize that Title IX has worked well for some groups of girls, but not others.
“For white, middle- to upper-class girls, it’s really worked well,” LaVoi said. “For other groups of underserved girls, it hasn’t worked as well. We have some room for improvement there.”
Female athletes at high schools where the majority of students are Black or Hispanic have only 67% of the opportunities to play sports that their male peers have, according to a study compiled by the Women’s Sports Foundation. Comparatively, at heavily white schools, girls have 82% of the opportunities that boys have.
There is also a disconnect between how Title IX is viewed when looking at different races. Women of color have faced racism and discrimination in the U.S. for decades, so there are additional barriers and inequities standing in the way of their participation in athletics than there are for white girls.
This series also didn’t touch on equal participation and access for girls and women with disabilities.
Women across the country acknowledge the strides that still need to be made. According to a poll released June 15, 2022, by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the National Women’s History Museum, 50% of women said only some progress has been made toward gender equality in the U.S. About a third of women surveyed, 37%, said a lot of progress has been made compared to 61% of men who said the U.S. has made a great deal of progress.
Fifty years is both a long time to push for change and a short time to realize it. For LaVoi, though, it’s important that all understand the importance of the groundbreaking legislation.
“We just have to realize that while Title IX has created a lot of social change, it's constantly under attack,” she said. “We have to remain vigilant that it's not undermined because there's a lot of energy right now in undermining the rights of women and their bodies and their access to equality, and Title IX is a part of that.”