Narrowing the Gap

Supporters of Title IX happily credit the 1972 law with swelling the rosters of the nation’s sports teams with women. What’s often overlooked amid their praise, though, is that most of those teams, especially those at the college level, have remained overwhelmingly white.

Title IX, it turns out, hasn’t benefited female athletes of color nearly as much as it has their white teammates. And the resulting gap, says one legal scholar in a newly published book, poses a challenge for those who rally passionately around the law.

“Title IX did not introduce problems of racial inequality into our nation’s school system,” says Deborah L. Brake, author of Getting in the Game: Title IX and the Women’s Sports Revolution, published this month by New York University Press. “The problem is, Title IX doesn’t do anything about it, either.”

If proponents of gender equity want to achieve Title IX’s goals for women of all races, Brake writes, they’ll need “a dose of social-justice feminism” to broaden their advocacy beyond the letter of the law. Otherwise, she says, racial disparities that are deeply rooted in the K-12 educational system—where sports offerings in urban and low-income areas are scant for boys, and even more limited for girls—will continue to thwart female athletes’ access to sports at the college level.

I recently caught up with Brake, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, to discuss her new book, which takes a thorough look at the history of Title IX, its impact on women’s sports, and many of the thorny debates about the law.

In a section about Title IX’s impact on minority women, Brake argues that the status quo in gender-equity advocacy won’t do much to fix cracks in the pipeline to women’s collegiate teams.

Two problems help to explain this shortfall, Brake told me.

“One is that Title IX itself focuses on gender in isolation. The second is that Title IX advocacy has really focused on sports in isolation,” she says. “When we use Title IX to try to push for gender equality in sports, unless we’re going to also incorporate strategies of racial justice, we’re going to end up benefiting the most-privileged girls.”

It’s not that Title IX has left minority female athletes behind completely, Brake points out. They now have far more athletic opportunities than in the pre-Title IX era. The sports they play, however, reveal a narrow scope of participation, she says: Nine out of 10 black women who play college sports, for instance, compete in either basketball or track. (For complete NCAA data on the racial and ethnic makeup of college teams, click here.)

In the meantime, the increasing prevalence of what Brake calls the “country-club sports” in college programs—rowing, soccer, lacrosse, and swimming, to name a few—has also largely bypassed nonwhite female athletes. At the high-school level, those sports are popular among girls in affluent suburbs, but not in urban areas or at cash-strapped public schools with limited athletic programs. In fact, many of those sports are not offered in high schools at all, only in private club programs.

Of the 10 college sports for women that experienced the most growth from 1995 to 2004, Brake writes, only two—softball and volleyball—had rosters that were more than 10 percent minority. All the rest, which included some of the fastest-growing sports for women, like soccer and lacrosse, had minimal participation from minority groups.

To get at the root of those disparities, Brake says, advocates who have been focused on Title IX enforcement at the college level should embrace a more-comprehensive approach: They should push for stronger physical-education programs at elementary and secondary schools, and encourage school administrators, community groups, and sports leagues catering to school-age children to consider a diverse range of sports when adding new programs. And they should lobby for a law that would require high schools to disclose athletic participation data. (Colleges and universities do this annually under the federal Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act.)

Any solution to the racial gap, Brake predicts, is likely to be as complex as the underlying problem. “There’s no handful of magic sports to add that would get rid of this,” Brake says. “Unless we correct that gap in the early years, we’re not going to correct it at the college level.”

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