50 years since Title IX, work remains on gender issues in sports

When Carla Williams became Virginia’s athletic director, all she wanted was someone to call.

“You know, when I became an athletic director at Virginia in 2017, there was no one else that looked like me,” said Williams, a former deputy AD at Georgia, the first Black woman to be named an athletic director of a Power Five school and the first woman hired as AD at Virginia. “You know, there was no one who looked like me that I could call and say, how did you do that? You know, what were the challenges? How do you manage the difficulties? And that was just four short years ago.”

On June 23, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed the Education Amendments Act, known for its Title IX, that targeted gender discrimination in the U.S. education system. Although not explicitly mentioned, sports came to the forefront of the law.

Since Title IX became a law, women now make up nearly half of college athletes, and in the NIL era, many out-earn their male counterparts. However, there is ground yet to be broken. Title IX was created to go beyond growing the number of women playing the game. It also was created to fight against inequities in employment.

With all the gains seen in the past 50 years, work remains to be done to reach equity in sports.

Shift that changed the landscape of sports

American women have played organized sports since the 19th century. Vassar College broke the glass ceiling with two women’s baseball teams in 1866. Women’s basketball was created when Senda Berenson Abbott introduced the first rules exclusively for women and welcomed the game to Smith College in 1892.

From the 106 years following Vassar College’s first teams to Title IX, women continued to play without adequate support from the education system.

According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, the year before Title IX was enacted, girls high school athletic participation was at about 294,015 and college women’s participation was 29,977. According to the Women’s Equity Resource Center, before Title IX, women’s college athletics received only about 2% of athletic budgets and almost no athletic scholarships. With such a lack of resources, budgets and support, many women stayed away from playing.

Chris Griffin, Georgia Tech’s Title IX coordinator, still recalls the immediate impact of the new law. As a high school volleyball player, she said “the changes were pretty incredible.”

“My freshman year in high school, we played our volleyball games in the cast-off practice jerseys from the football team, and they were huge,” Griffin said. “Those were some big jerseys, but we all matched, and we were on the court. The next year, of course, I had no idea what had happened in the intervening year, but the next year, we actually had uniforms. ... Looking back, you know, I attribute that to Title IX, and to the changing landscape, the changing environment, surrounding opportunities for women in general.”

Athletics in the present and future

Women’s participation in high school and college sports has since skyrocketed. The NCAA’s Title IX Report states that in the 2019 school year, more than 3.4 million girls participated in high school sports (43% of all athletes). In college sports, there were 221,212 women in championship sports (43.9%), dramatic growth since 1971.

One reason that participation has increased is because there are now more professional benefits and opportunities for women. As the future of women’s sports continues to be brighter with more exposure and funding, the next generation of athletes is set up.

“I think Title IX has afforded us the opportunity to grow more now than ever,” Dream President and COO Morgan Shaw Parker said. “The importance of Title IX is even bigger now than I think it was back then because you’re starting to see the spotlight being shined, but as well as the money coming in for women’s sports.”

Although much progress has been made, there is still progress to be made in closing the gender gap.

At the 40th anniversary mark of Title IX, the National Women’s Law Center analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection from the 2011-12 school year and found that about two-thirds of Georgia high schools had a 10% or higher gap in gender equity in sports. The finding is illustrated by the gap in the percentage of girls in each school and the percentage of athletes on each girls sports team.

“Title IX applies in every aspect of higher education,” Chris Griffin said. “And not just higher education, but K through 12. So, at the elementary, middle school, high school level, as well as the college level. We have seen that opening up of sports opportunities to women, and when you participate in sports, you gain a lot of transferable skills. You may not go on to be a professional athlete, but the things that you learn through teamwork, competition, collegiality, you know, sacrifice, dedication, those are things that shape you as a person and have great impact on individual and collective lives.”

The impact of women in administrative roles

More than 90% of athletic directors for women’s programs were female when Title IX was passed. With the merging of women’s and men’s departments because of Title IX, some women lost their leadership positions.

It wasn’t until Judith Sweet of the University of California-San Diego that the FBS had its first female athletic director over both men’s and women’s teams in 1975. In the past 47 years, progress has been made, with there now being six women athletic directors in Division I Power Five schools.

According to the 2021 DI FBS Leadership College Racial and Gender Report Card from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES), women athletic directors make up about 10% of the 130 athletic director positions in the FBS. This percentage increased from 2020 when women made up about 9.2% of FBS athletic directors.

According to the NCAA, women made up 23.9% of athletic directors in 2019-20 across all divisions; and 16% of athletic directors were minorities.

“There’s a long way to go, when it comes to athletic director positions, we have a long way to go when it comes to senior level, and administrative positions,” Williams said. “I think that it’s really important for women and people of color to see it in order to give you that confidence, and that encouragement that you can also, you know, aspire to that type of position, as well. So, we don’t have nearly enough representation at the senior level management. There’s a lot of work to be done there in college athletics.”

The numbers among other positions of leadership in athletics have seen a decrease. TIDES reported that 37.8% of all faculty athletic representatives in 2021 were women, down from 40.3% in the previous year.

“I do think that there is value in having diverse representation, meaningful, diverse representation at the table, and any unit in any organization,” said Darrice Griffin, the University of Georgia’s senior deputy athletic director. “Because we understand that when you have diversity at the table, and that diverse thought, it strengthens organizational performance, and that diverse representation helps ensure that our student body – that is diverse − they appreciate and they understand that people who look like them are in leadership and decision-making positions.”

The financial challenges still present

One topic that has continued to circulate is the lack of financial support that many women’s sports still face. Arguments often alternate about the value of women’s sports in comparison with men, but regardless one basis of Title IX is complete compliance of financial equality. The NCAA’s Title IX Report outlined that in FBS institutions, men’s athletic spending was about $25.6 million more than their women counterparts during the 2018-19 school year.

Despite the athletic expenses, the growth in popularity of women’s sports has continued to skyrocket year. In women’s basketball, the first and second rounds of the 2022 NCAA women’s basketball tournament had its highest attendance record of 216,890 people. In the same light, TV viewership skyrocketed, increasing 16% from the previous year, with the Final Four having about 20% more viewers.

“You think about the fact that the ad revenue for March Madness and the women’s college basketball tournament, the ad revenue coming in the first two rounds were sold out by the time the tournament even started, and that’s never happened before,” Shaw Parker said. “You see now. There was a $75 million capital raised from the WNBA in terms of funding and sustaining the league. So, you know, you see the (pay equity) coming out with (the National Women’s Soccer League). There’s a lot of really great, really great things happening and a lot of great momentum happening in women’s sports, but I think Title IX is a conduit through all of that.”

Success also is seen in softball’s numbers. This year’s Women’s College World Series most-watched game averaged about 1.7 million viewers, making this year’s championship series the second most-watched two-game series ever for the sport. While the men’s most-watched game averaged 1.6 million. There is an audience, the problem now lies in aligning the finances with the growth.

The next 50 years of Title IX

This summer, many embarked on celebrating the work done in the past. Some people, including Darrice Griffin, point to the needs of the future. “What I hope to see in this year of celebrating the anniversary of Title IX is a recommitment to continuous assessment and to continuously advancement,” she said.

With many different topics about what is to come at the forefront of this chapter of Title IX, each woman included in this article has a different hope.

“It’s my hope that someday my position will be obsolete,” Chris Griffin said. “That it won’t be necessary because, you know, we’ll have achieved equity and equality.”

“I hope to see more fans in attendance at women’s games,” Shaw Parker said. “I hope to see more business communities investing in women’s sports. I hope to see more women in leadership roles and women of color in leadership roles across men’s and women’s teams. And I hope to see pay equity.”

“I hope that, you know, it isn’t such a big deal to be the first at something, I hope that it becomes the norm quickly,” Williams said. “... And I hope that as as our world changes and shifts, I hope that we never lose the perspective that education is what’s most important and access to an education and that sport provides that for people who may ordinarily not have had access.”