The Law that Changed the Rules of the Game: Title IX at 33

By Janis Hashe


In 1970, Laurie Knollhoff was a star. Her junior high school coach had discovered and encouraged her running and jumping skills, and she excelled at track meets, consistently winning middle-distance races and the long jump. Then she entered high school.

Stats and Scorecards

• An estimated 80 percent of all schools and colleges are not fully in compliance with Title IX after 33 years.

• Over 50 percent of college students are female, but college female athletes receive 36 percent of all sports operating expenditures.

• A 2000 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 79 percent of respondents approved of Title IX.

Source: Women’s Sports Foundation
Title IX means that you can be a mom and an olympic athlete! Read on... 

‘Mom, Can I Play with Your Gold Medals?’

“All of a sudden, it seemed that girls were not supposed to do sports,” she says. “I felt frustrated and confused. There was nothing for us.”

For Elise Amour, the situation was worse.

There were no after-school girls’ sports of any kind at my junior high or high school,” Amour says. “There were plenty for the boys – football, baseball, softball, track, wrestling and basketball. I participated in sports during PE only. I did enjoy volleyball and basketball, but we would only play for a week or so.”

Both of these women now have high-school-age daughters who are star athletes with scholarship possibilities in front of them. The difference? In 1972, Congress passed a landmark piece of legislation: Title IX, one of several amendments to the Higher Education Act. The basic text is simple and straightforward: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal aid.”

The ramifications of these 35 words went far beyond athletics. But in girls’ and women’s sports, they caused a revolution that continues today. In 1972, one in 27 high school girls participated in varsity sports. In 2004, the number was one in every 2.5, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, a charitable and educational organization founded by tennis player Billie Jean King to advance the lives of girls and women through sports and physical activity.

“Title IX was meant as an education statute, but it quickly gained meaning as a sports mandate when the courts ruled that inter-scholastic sports were an important part of the education process,” says sports law attorney Eldon Ham. “It affects millions of female athletes, nowhere more noticeably than in team sports, such as basketball, soccer, softball, volleyball, track and field, field hockey and others, not to mention gymnastics, swimming, skiing, figure skating and speed skating. In turn, this spawned a much larger pool of talented and trained female athletes who dramatically improved the U.S. Olympic team.”


Leveling the Playing Field

Because educational institutions at every level were now required to provide equal athletic opportunities for boys and girls, major changes in facilities and funding had to be implemented.

Though this process proceeded much more slowly in some areas of the country, in most places girls now had opportunities in after-school programs, including track and field, softball, basketball and, of course, soccer.

“Four years after the passage of Title IX, there was a 60 percent increase in female participation in sports,” says Suzanne Eckes, Ph.D., assistant professor in educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University and a specialist in Title IX

In some middle schools and high schools, girls began to play on what had formerly been all-male teams. Sally Sullivan says her daughter Julie, now 21, “played on the boys’ teams in basketball and baseball. She was on a girls’ team in soccer. She was quite a tomboy, so she enjoyed the boys’ teams more.”

Bud Turner, director of K-12 pedagogy at Seattle Pacific University, notes, “As a coach, I am seeing great improvements. The opportunities are there. However, in the ‘money sports’: skating, gymnastics and golf, many are still held back by the issue of economics.”

Funding for Title IX-mandated programs proved controversial and resulted in numerous lawsuits. College athletic directors, in particular, objected that they would need to cut men’s programs in order to incorporate women’s. The courts, however, have upheld Title IX each time.

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“The NCAA fought Title IX every step of the way,” sportswriter Welch Suggs notes in his new book, A Place on the Team. “The NCAA tried to sue to prevent the law from being implemented, and called on its allies in Congress to block it. But every attempt failed, and the NCAA proceeded to take over women’s sports programs in the early 1980s.”

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Lawsuits continue, however: A case slated to come before the U.S. Supreme Court this summer, Roderick Jackson vs. the Birmingham Board of Education, is being brought by a coach who says he was fired for “whistleblowing” on a district failing to comply with Title IX.

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“In June 2003, former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige convened the Commission on Opportunity in Athletics to study Title IX on its 30th anniversary,” Eckes explains. “During the study, critics complained that the statute discriminates against men because it is an affirmative action plan that aids female athletes at the expense of males.” This view, rather than the need for better enforcement of the law in order to fulfill its promise of equal opportunities, was reflected in the commission’s report, but its findings were not widely embraced.

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“Title IX survived a direct frontal assault,” says Suggs, whose book details the commission, the controversy surrounding it and its findings.

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Yet, even now, after more than three decades of progress under Title IX, many schools are still in violation of the law, and girls’ and women’s sports advocates continue to press for better enforcement.

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“It still affects girls every day,” says David Salter, author of Crashing the Old Boys’ Network: The Tragedies and Triumphs of Girls and Women in Sports. “I have three daughters and, as they entered school, I became angry about the lack of sports opportunities for them.”

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P class=MsoBodyText style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Benefits Beyond Sports

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Supporters of Title IX and the changes it has wrought point to the benefits beyond physical fitness that increased participation in sports has provided girls.

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“The positives go on and on,” says Elise Amour, whose 14-year-old daughter, Celeste, has been playing basketball since she was 5. “Self-esteem building, learning to be a winner and a loser, what it means to be on a team, supporting and respecting each other, the ability to focus and the motivation to win, being organized, compromising, coping with disappointment, and understanding what good sportsmanship is all about.”

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Knollhoff’s daughter Jolene, 15, who participates in track and tennis, says, “I’ve learned to handle difficult situations, how to deal with people, and about winning and losing.”

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Salter points to studies that indicate that girls who participate in organized sports are “80 percent less likely to become pregnant as teenagers, 92 percent less likely to abuse alcohol, and three times more likely to graduate from high school” than those who do not. “Other research has shown that 88 percent of female executives participated in childhood sports,” he says.

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P class=MsoBodyText style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">The Downside?

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Suggs, who as a cross-country runner had seen his sport lose funding and had a “negative perception” of Title IX’s effects for years, now says, “The tragedy of Title IX is not that it has resulted in the cutting of men’s sports, but that women’s sports have now been dragged into the same arena as men’s.” The original supporters of Title IX, he argues, believed in “a sport for every girl and a girl for every sport. But now there is an emphasis on elite sports and elite athletes, who are identified at a very young age,” he says.

Suggs cites a story in which a soccer dad in Tyler, Texas, approached an opposition coach and asked him why, in defiance of the rules, he was not playing the girls on his bench.

“This coach asked me if I expected him ‘to just quit trying to win.’ I quietly told him that this game is about fun and development, not winning. He laughed and asked me what planet I was from. I fully expect those girls who sit on the bench for his team to quit the game, probably for good, and they are only 8,” the dad told Suggs.


The Next Battlegrounds

All the Title IX experts interviewed agree that the great gains made by women’s sports at the college level need to be emulated at high schools and middle schools.

“There are still tremendous shortcomings in equipment, facilities, uniforms and the quality of coaching,” says Salter. “Enforcement at this level has been lax and penalties have not been leveled. It takes dedication to make these changes, and parents need to educate themselves about what still needs to be done.”

But Catherine Pieronek, assistant director of academic programs at Notre Dame’s College of Engineering, has a different take. She believes that the sports spotlight on Title IX has blinded many to the lack of enforcement in other areas.

“Title IX has really fallen short of expectations in the academic context,” she says. “In athletics, while progress was slow (the law was on the books for 20 years before the first lawsuits called attention to what it really meant in terms of athletics), it did come eventually. Now, many are wondering why it has not had a similarly strong impact on the academic side of our educational system, particularly in terms of science, engineering and mathematics, where women are horribly under-represented. Women comprise 20 percent or less of physics students and engineering students, for example. Now, after 30 years, people are finally turning attention to the under-representation of Title IX in the academic sphere, and this is going to bring a whole new dimension to the law in very short order.”

After 33 years, it may only be halftime for Title IX.




National Association for Girls & Women in Sports  – This advocacy organization (part of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance) promotes equity issues such as equal funding, quality and respect for girls’ and women’s sports.

National Coalition on Women and Girls in Education  – This nonprofit partnership of more than 50 organizations is dedicated to improving educational opportunities for girls and women, including strengthening the enforcement of
Title IX.

Women’s Sports Foundation     – Offers extensive information about Title IX and research on sports in society and the effect on women’s and girls’ lives.



A Place on the Team
, by Welch Suggs, Princeton University Press, 2005.

Crashing the Old Boys’ Network: The Tragedies and Triumphs of Girls and Women in Sports
, by David Salter, Praeger, 1996.

“Title IX: The Deregulation Ploy,”
by Sharyn Tejani, Ms. Magazine, June 2003; available online. Details the ongoing shortcomings of the law and flaws of the federal Commission on Opportunity in Athletics report.