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How Title IX is undermining college sports

Since 1972, the definition of sex discrimination has expanded beyond what's covered by this breakthrough – but narrow – law.

Women playing basketball
Maryland vs. Holy Cross women’s basketball game, Mar. 17, 2023 (cc) Patrick Siebert/Flickr

Good Authority editor Nadia E. Brown interviewed James N. Druckman and Elizabeth A. Sharrow about their new book Equality Unfulfilled: How Title IX’s Policy Design Undermines Change to College Sports (Cambridge University Press, 2023). 

Nadia Brown: Gender and gender identity are seen as hot button issues in today’s political climate. Yet you implore readers to imagine a world where gender equity is plausible, which is a departure for most political science books. What led you to write this book now and in this way?

James N. Druckman and Elizabeth A. Sharrow: It has been roughly 50 years since the passage of a number of federal-level, liberal feminist policies designed to address sex discrimination, pregnancy and credit discrimination, pay inequity, etc. – but there is little social science that assesses the outcomes or impacts of these policies on gender inequality. At the same time, there is a common presumption that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 has been extremely successful – particularly in the realm of school-sponsored athletics. This stems from people assuming that the inclusion of women in intercollegiate and interscholastic sports, relative to near total exclusion before 1972, is a sign of increased equality. 

Yet, by virtually any metric, there are vast inequalities between men’s and women’s intercollegiate sports. This is true when it comes to spending, participation opportunities, and college athletic leadership positions. In fact, the proportion of women coaches has dramatically fallen over time. 

Others have noted this reality. Yet, most suggest that better enforcement of Title IX is the path toward more equality. We wanted to write the book to not only emphasize the overshadowed reality that equality remains dramatically lacking, but also to explain why it is absent. This led us to think carefully about the institutions that govern college sports and the possible pathways to change. Our data demonstrate that institutions hamper movement toward full equality, leading us to argue for structural change. 

Your book details implications for gender equity beyond college sports. What does the case of gender inequality in college sports broadly tell us about the enduring nature of systemic discrimination?

This is a great question. We identify three institutional hurdles to achieving equality: sex segregation, organizational culture, and market forces. We believe such institutions are present, in various guises, throughout society and undermine efforts toward more equitable outcomes. 

When two groups are institutionally separated from one another, they cannot learn about each other’s experiences and perspectives, and it leaves the less powerful group with little hope of creating coalitional allies with whom to press for change from the bottom up. When organizations create cultures that legitimize the dominance of one group (numerically and in practice), those from marginalized groups are forced to adapt or exit. This undermines leaders from marginalized groups who might otherwise act as representatives pushing for change from the top down. When public entities let the marketplace drive decisions, consumption patterns rather than normative values drive outcomes. Market-forces decenter organizing and activism, relying instead on passively evolving trends to shape potential change from the outside in. 

Our case illustrates how institutions can suppress pathways to political agitation and policy change. The lessons apply to discussions of any inter-group context – that is, discrimination can result from (and persist as a result of) segregation, perverse organizational practices, or market dynamics. Perhaps unexpectedly to many scholars, college athletics provide many generalizable lessons about the limitations of political processes for addressing inequality.

Title IX was watershed legislation. Yet the definition of sex discrimination has itself expanded substantially, as has the need for more nuanced interpretations of this relatively narrow law. These evolutions have presented unforeseen implementation challenge How can Title IX make room for gender-expansive student athletes? How may policy speak to the evolving nature of gender-identity and quests for equality?

Since Title IX itself is very brief, there is a lot of room for interpretation and debate. Policy design and implementation have proven contentious, and the emerging politics are among the reasons why efforts to include women in sports were very slow after Title IX’s passage. 

Right now, transgender and nonbinary athletes (sometimes collectively referred to as “gender-diverse” athletes) face distinct challenges in being incorporated into sports teams under Title IX’s sex segregated policy design. The preponderance of school-sponsored athletic teams at the high school and college levels are organized into competitive categories that are nominally sex-based. For athletes who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, inclusion on their school’s team is often straightforward; rules that determine the eligibility of nonbinary and/or transgender athletes to join the team of their choice vary. In some states, high school athletic associations have passed very permissive inclusion policies that protect the rights of gender-diverse youth to participate on the team that best aligns with their identity. In other states, legislators have passed laws that compel schools to restrict eligibility to athletic teams based only on sex assigned at birth. The U.S. Department of Education has yet to announce final policy interpretations of Title IX to determine inclusionary standards for transgender athletes on sex-segregated teams. 

This uneven policy landscape reveals another peril of segregated systems. Republican party elites have increasingly claimed that segregated teams designated for girls and women require special gatekeeping, often dubiously invoking arguments about fair competition to deny access for trans athletes. There is a long list of problems with this perspective, including that it violates the central premise of Title IX which outlaws sex-based discriminatory exclusions. It also suggests, without evidence, that transgender girls and women have unfair competitive advantages, broadly speaking. Yet, at the most basic level, arguments (and state laws such as these) distort the reality that in educational settings, sports are a mechanism for learning, socialization, and growth. Our perspective is that using Title IX to justify discrimination and exclusion causes serious harm.

Thus we argue that a focus on the institutions causing the harm should be central to policy critique – not a focus on the transgender athletes seeking access. Strictly sex-segregated teams create ideas about false binaries that are being used to exclude trans youth from youth sports, so we suggest this presents more evidence that segregated structures can damage as much as they help. 

In our conclusions, we present a host of alternative models for organizing sports in ways that loosen our attachment to categorical separation, all of which could be pursued in policy and practice, and each of which would improve the status quo for nonbinary and transgender athletes and cisgender girls and women.

One central frame of the book focuses on the prevalence of androcentric organizational cultures – cultures that treat men as the model – as an institutional factor that prohibits gender equality. Can you expand this frame to other intersectional or marginalized identities?

One of the sharpest critiques of Title IX’s legislative design is an intersectional one in the tradition of scholar Kimberley Crenshaw’s work on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1964. By designating only sex-based discrimination as illegal under Title IX and leaving race-based discrimination claims to be pursued under Title VI of the CRA, many of the benefits afforded by expanding opportunity under Title IX have accrued to white women. Black women athletes are under-represented in the college athletic population, both as measured against the proportion of their enrollment in higher education and as against their proportion of the U.S. population. Yet Black women athletes would have to choose to pursue either a Title IX or a Title VI claim with the Office for Civil Rights to seek redress for discrimination. As a consequence, Title IX has proven a powerful vehicle for disrupting the gender order, but it has done very little (by design) to address racial inequalities. Likewise, as Kirsten Hextrum explores in her work, the bulk of college athletes come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, revealing how Title IX has exacerbated class inequalities. Furthermore, Title IX has benefited nearly entirely able-bodied athletes.

One of the shortcomings of our book is that, in order to advance our analyses about Title IX’s gendered impacts, we were able to explore less nuance within opinion among intersectional or other marginalized identities in our populations. However, we think that our critiques have value for those centrally concerned with intersectional outcomes. We join cause with the many scholars and activists who advocate for greater attention to Title IX’s insufficiency within racialized, disabled, and minoritized communities and have hope that renewed attention to policy design can refocus public attention and debate to better solving these issues. 

Arguments attentive to intersectional inequalities can be made at the juncture of our conclusions about organizational culture. Insofar as we argue that organizational cultures put those from marginalized groups in difficult situations, often forcing them to adapt to the dominant culture or exit, we suspect that such pressures would likely redouble for those from multiple marginalized identity groups. Efforts to structurally change college sport must adopt a healthy critique of the power structures that have reproduced athletic opportunities for the already-privileged, and center the voices of policymakers and advocates for diverse marginalized groups in crafting policy for the next generation.

Book cover for Equality Unfulfilled by James N. Druckman and Elizabeth A. Sharrow
This book has clear societal implications for how Americans think about college sports. What do you hope readers gain from this study?

We hope that readers wake up to the unfortunately uneven progress toward gender inequality under Title IX. The stories circulated in many media portrayals of Title IX often compare 2022 to 1972, when the law passed. While circumstances can look rosy from that vantage point, we aim to shift the paradigm to a more staid evaluation of today’s status quo. Women and gender-diverse people are being treated as second-class citizens in college sports in many highly visible yet routinely ignored ways. We hope that readers think carefully about what kind of message such openly disparate treatment sends to young Americans about the value of girls, women, and gender-diverse people.

We also hope that the book helps readers unsettle their assumptions about what is working “well” in college sport. Frankly, we should all be stunned that sex segregation is preventing policy coalitions for gender equality among an athlete population that is largely supportive of the principle of equality. In essence, the systems designed to pursue equality are serving as roadblocks in our quest to achieve those ideals.

Finally, we hope that this fresh diagnosis of what prevents change actually gives readers hope. Progress under Title IX has been remarkably stalled for several decades, leaving many dedicated activists perplexed and dismayed. We hope that the book helps to flip the script for those seeking new points of entry, and renewed conversation in the pursuit of full equality.