Gender Equity in Athletics

Written by Joanna Grossman

As millions of young athletes hit the playing fields this fall, we should take stock of all the strides that have been made towards gender equity in athletics — and all that could still be done.  A new book by Deborah Brake, University of Pittsburgh School of Law, does this brilliantly.  Getting in the Game: Title IX and the Women’s Sports Revolution (NYU Press 2010) is a detailed, compelling, and readable account of Title IX and the ongoing quest for gender equity in sports.

In the book, Brake considers Title IX’s impact on athletics from its passage in 1972 through 2010.  An iconic law that has inspired everything from blogs, sit-ins, and t-shirt slogans to vicious backlash, Title IX is widely credited with opening the doors to the massive numbers of girls and women now participating in competitive sports.  Yet, few people fully understand the law’s requirements, its enforcement mechanisms, or the extent to which it has succeeded in challenging the gender norms that have circumscribed women’s opportunities as athletes and their place in society more generally.

Getting in the Game is the first sustained legal analysis of Title IX.  Brake considers the core mechanisms for ensuring equal athletic opportunity — sex-segregated teams with limited opportunities for cross-team tryouts and a robust guarantee of equal playing opportunities — as well as the thorny but important issues of harassment, pregnant athletes, retaliation, discrimination against coaches.   She does great justice to the three-part test that is used to measure equal opportunity and that has generated substantial controversy.

This book comes at an important time.  Many colleges and universities are struggling with the fair allocation of scarce resources, and Title IX compliance efforts often result in unpopular decisions.  But we mustn’t lose sight of the continuing struggle by female athletes to be treated fairly.  As I have written for FindLaw’s Writ, the Obama Administration recently took steps to reinvigorate Title IX enforcement, reversing a Bush-era policy that opened a loophole for schools by allowing them to rely on e-mail surveys to establish that it has fully accommodated the athletic needs of the underrepresented sex.

Getting in the Game provides an assessment of the law’s successes and failures.  While the statute has created tremendous gains for female athletes, not only raising the visibility and cultural acceptance of women in sports, but also creating social bonds for women, positive body images, and leadership roles, the disparities in funding between men’s and women’s sports have remained remarkably resilient.  At the same time, female athletes continue to receive less prestige and support than their male counterparts, which in turn filters into the arena of professional sports.

Brake credits Title IX’s pragmatic blend of different strands of feminist theory for its successes.  Unlike most anti-discrimination laws, Title IX breaks out of the formal equality mold and draws as well on substantive equality and anti-subordination theories.  She offers ideas about how to combat the points of continuing inequity and does much to explain why the backlash against Title IX is misguided.

It is perhaps cliche to say a book is a must-read, but for those interested in education, athletics, gender, or even parenting, it is just that.