Title IX, 50 years later: Why female athletes are still fighting for equality
50 years ago, Title IX outlawed sex-based discrimination at federally funded schools.
But in collegiate level sports, you’d be pushed to know it.
Not a single school has lost federal funding because of Title IX.
“Even when they are blatantly and woefully out of compliance, it’s never happened. And so the only individuals enforcing change are the students.”
Schools argue — women’s teams don’t bring in the revenue.
“This is an anti-discrimination law. It is not a business plan. It is an anti-discrimination law that has to do with educational opportunities.”
Today, On Point: College athletics and Title IX.
Donna Lopiano, former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, where she served for 15 years. She’s also a nine-time All-American softball player and member of the National Sports Hall of Fame. (@DonnaLopiano)
Lori Bullock, civil rights lawyer who has represented several Title IX cases.
Amy Cohen, a former gymnast at Brown University, who sued her school in 1992 for Title IX violations.
Anna Susini, a former fencing player at Brown University, who sued her school in 2020.
Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College. (@azimbalitw)
Transcript: Title IX, College Sports And A Lawsuit at Brown University
KIMBERLY ATKINS STOHR: On this day, 50 years ago, June 23, 1972, an amendment was signed into law that held a promise to change women’s lives forever.
BIRCH BAYH [Tape]: Our goal was to see that our daughters would have the same opportunities as our sons.
ATKINS STOHR: That’s then-senator Birch Bayh from Indiana, described as the father of Title IX, an amendment tacked onto the 1964 Civil Rights Act, banning gender discrimination at all schools receiving federal funds.
It was just one sentence, a mere 37 words, but it gave thousands of women in the U.S. more opportunities from the classroom to the playing fields. For Representative Patsy Mink of Hawaii, it marked a cultural shift in America.
PATSY MINK [Tape]: And so long as any part of our society adheres to a sexist notion that men should do certain things and women should do certain things, and then begin to inculcate our babies with these notions through curriculum development and so forth, then we’ll never be rid of the basic causes of sex discrimination.
ATKINS STOHR: And before Title IX, roughly 294,000 girls were playing high school sports. The number for boys, 3.7 million. Today, that gap has shrunk significantly, with more than 3.4 million girls participating in high school sports. That’s about a million fewer than the number of boys. Meanwhile, at the collegiate level, 30,000 women played college sports in 1971, whereas today it’s more than 219,000.
But these numbers don’t tell the full story.
Just because there’s an equity law, doesn’t mean there’s the equity there should be.
Amy Cohen was a gymnast at Brown University, class of 1992. She excelled. Her team won the Ivy League title for the first time, and she was elected co-captain her senior year. Things were going really well, until they weren’t.
AMY COHEN: It was a nice spring weekend. We were outside and some other athletes came up to me and said, I don’t know if you heard that they’re eliminating, they’re cutting the gymnastics team. I couldn’t believe it.
But sure enough, the next day, the athletic director called our team over and we had a meeting with him. And he told us that they had asked him to make some budget cuts. And the way that he was choosing to do that was by eliminating four of the varsity teams. Gymnastics included.
ATKINS STOHR: Besides women’s gymnastics, the women’s volleyball and men’s golf and water polo teams were also cut. But the number of women impacted was larger than the number of men.
COHEN: So right away we looked at, What else could we do? And that’s how we came across our understanding of Title IX. We started to learn about Title IX. It was not anything I’d ever heard of. It was not anything anyone had ever taught me about, even though it had already been around for quite a long time.
The more we looked into it, the more we learned, the more we believed that Brown was in violation of Title IX, and the more we believed that this was maybe an issue bigger than just our gymnastics team.
ATKINS STOHR: So they called up a lawyer and decided to do the unthinkable. Sue the very university they were attending.
COHEN: So we went forward, moving forward with the lawsuit, really believing that it was just going to be a threat and that that would be the best way to get our team back. We were surprised when Brown said, absolutely not. We are leaders in women’s sports, and if we’re in violation, everyone in the country is in violation. And go ahead, take us to court.
We felt that we were doing the right thing, but I think we were not met with much support or positive reaction.
There was the fear from other athletes, so other female athletes, that if it wasn’t our team, it would be their team. There was the fear from some big men’s sports, like football, that it would negatively impact their budgets, because that money to fund the women would have to come from their budgets. There was the fear from smaller …
ATKINS STOHR: It took six years, but Brown University finally settled. In 1998, it agreed to offer athletic opportunities to women, roughly proportionate to their enrollment, and restored the women’s gymnastics and volleyball teams.
COHEN: It felt like a huge win because most of the schools around the country were not complying with Title IX. And I think that made an impact that we never imagined, but we really embraced and we really were so happy to see that schools around the country really started to look at their programs and say, Wow, we are out of violation. And I think a lot of schools around the country did start to make positive changes.
ATKINS STOHR: For more than 20 years, Cohen vs. Brown has stood as the landmark case in upholding Title IX. In May 2020, Anna Susini was a rising junior at Brown, just elected co-captain of the fencing team when she received an impromptu email from the athletics department to join a zoom call within the hour.
ANNA SUSINI: And it was Jack Hayes, who was the director of athletics. Who basically announced, We’re cutting these sports. I don’t really remember what he said after that. Because everyone was freaking out and texting me. And I was texting my coach, and I remember texting my co-captain and asking him like, did we just get cut? Is that what just happened? And he was like, Yeah, that is what just happened. And the whole thing was really unbelievable.
ATKINS STOHR: In total, the university cut 11 teams. Men’s and women’s fencing, golf and squash, as well as women’s skiing, women’s equestrian, men’s track and field and cross-country.
Brown said its varsity teams were underperforming and it wanted to streamline the number of teams to enable them to be more competitive. Right away, the student athletes started organizing to figure out what they could do to save their teams.
SUSINI: The turning point was really a couple weeks later, when the men’s track team got reinstated. Because they had sort of launched their own PR campaign and that had gained a lot of ground very quickly, for that sport specifically. And then that was what threw the Title IX numbers way out of balance.
ATKINS STOHR: So Anna Susini along with several other student athletes at Brown, took the university to court. Among those opposed were Brown University President Christina Paxson. She was asked to read an email recently sent to her by Chancellor Samuel Mencoff, about that original 1998 Title IX settlement.
CHRISTINA PAXSON [Tape]: But here’s an idea. Could we use this moment where anger and frustration, especially from track and squash, are intense and building, to go after the consent decree once and for all? Could we channel all this emotion away from anger at Brown to anger at the court, and kill this pestilent thing?
ATKINS STOHR: Paxson replied, quote, I think it’s a good idea.
SUSINI: It felt like something that you read about, like some other school, like, Oh, this thing came out. And the chancellor said this and the president said, And can you believe it? Isn’t that insane?
And I couldn’t really believe that it was my school. It was this place that I held in such high regard for so long. I think it was very disorienting. And I was happy because of what it meant for our case. But it was also really sad to think that that’s how our administrators see an issue as important as gender equity.
ATKINS STOHR: A month after Paxson’s deposition, the university settled and agreed to restore the women’s fencing and equestrian teams. In a written statement, Brown President Christina Paxson stated, quote:
We are very pleased with the settlement. We can provide excellent athletics opportunities for women and men, be a leader in upholding Title IX and have a competitive varsity program. And we will.
ATKINS STOHR: As part of that settlement, starting in 2024, Brown University will be released from its agreement in Brown vs. Cohen to keep athletic opportunities for women within a set percentage of their enrollment. Brown University is not the only school that cut men’s and women’s athletic teams during the pandemic. From March to November 2020, 352 teams across the three NCAA divisions were eliminated, suspended or closed.
These eliminations represent the most program cuts in NCAA history in such a time period. Several of those schools have also been sued for violating Title IX, such as William and Mary, Dartmouth, the University of Iowa, Clemson, just to name a few. So on this 50th anniversary of Title IX, we’re going to focus on why the amendment is yet to live up to its original promise for women in college sports, and what can be done to fix that.
Providence Journal: “In open letter, plaintiffs in landmark sports equity case slam Brown University” — “The original plaintiffs in a Title IX lawsuit against Brown University have penned a scathing open letter directed at the university administration.”
USA Today: “Title IX: Falling short at 50” — “Despite tremendous gains during the past five decades, many colleges and universities fall short of Title IX, leaving women struggling for equity.”
Washington Post: “Colleges cut sports to save money amid the pandemic. Then came the Title IX lawsuits.” — “For her first three years as a collegiate swimmer, Sage Ohlensehlen knew enough about Title IX to sense there might be something wrong at her beloved University of Iowa.”
ESPN: “Title waves” — “The sun is out, reflecting off the water on the Derby side of the Housatonic, but there’s too much chop for a decent practice before the upcoming Ivy League championships.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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