From Cliff Hurl to Sochi: Advances in Equality for Women in Sports

Jane McElligott By Jane McElligott, JD, MSCJ, Professor, Legal Studies Faculty Member 

As the Olympic flame blazes in Sochi, lighting up ice rinks and ski runs full of athletes from different nationalities, races, cultures, and genders, it is a perfect opportunity to reflect upon key legislation that has paved a path toward equality in sport and beyond. In this country, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 stands at the forefront of legislation that has been instrumental in effecting gender equity on the playing field. What better way to celebrate Women’s History Month than to trace the path of gender equality in athletics, fueled by Title IX, from the ancient Olympics to Sochi. While females at the ancient Olympics were hurled off cliffs simply for being spectators, females of today participate as athletes at a level that grows incrementally with each Olympics.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs receiving federal funding. Although Title IX does not explicitly mention athletics, this is where the law has had the strongest impact, gradually leveling out the playing field by mandating equal opportunity, funding, and scholarships in sports for girls and women. “Title IX babies,” girls born after the passage of Title IX who have benefited from this landmark legislation, have made headlines as champions on fields, courts, tracks, ice rinks, and ski runs. Beyond the headlines, Title IX babies, who have benefited by participating in sports on an equal footing, have gained self-confidence, a competitive spirit, and a strong appreciation for teamwork and esprit de corps—attributes vigorously sought after in the business world.

Title IX has been unfairly disparaged as the cause of colleges eliminating certain men’s sports teams, allegedly cut to provide proportionate opportunities and funding to women in sports. The intent of Title IX was to expand opportunities for women, not to diminish opportunities for men. The proportionality rule of Title IX requires colleges to provide proportionate funding to men and women in sports according to their representation in the student body. For example, if 50% of the student body is female, then 50% of the funding for sports should go to female athletes. Some colleges, contrary to the spirit of fairness inherent in Title IX, have cut certain nonrevenue-producing men’s sports, such as swimming and wrestling, as a way to comply with the proportionality requirement without having to touch their overfunded football teams. Such decisions to cut less popular men’s sports are unsound policy decisions that are not in any way encouraged by Title IX. Laws that forge such positive headway toward gender equity are always subject to unfounded criticism by those who do not value equality in sports.

The positive changes brought about by Title IX afforded me the benefit of participating in sports on parity with men, but looking back a generation, my mother, now 94 years old, was denied this equal opportunity. My mother played on her high school basketball team as a “side center,” a position in which she passed the ball down the court, but was not allowed to run and dribble more than two times since such activity was considered “unladylike.” This early form of the game, in which players were restricted to limited zones of play, seems more similar to a game of “hot potato” than basketball. My mother earned the name “Bunny Byrne” for her ability to jump, even though she is only 4’11”; imagine if Bunny had been allowed to run and dribble down the court and score a basket and realize her full potential in sports. Title IX ensures that all current and future Bunny Byrnes will always have the opportunity to play to their utmost potential, with the full support of the law behind them!