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Title IX at 50: huge gains for women's sports, but more work to do

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Title IX at 50: huge gains for women's sports, but more work to do
Vice President Kamala Harris attempts to make a basket during a surprise visit to a field day hosted by the Department of Education and the Women's Sports Foundation to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX at American University in Washington on Wednesday. Photo by Ron Sachs/UPI | License Photo

MIAMI, June 23 (UPI) -- As Title IX marks its 50th anniversary Thursday, supporters proclaim the law has sparked record participation, profits and educational opportunities for women through sports.

Critics say equality is stymied by the cash-driven NCAA and those who ignore the law, which protects people in education programs that receive federal funding -- like youth sports through college athletics -- from discrimination based on sex.

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Even after 50 years, Title IX does not seem to be well-known around the country. A February Pew Research poll found that about 87% of Americans have heard little or nothing about the law. Other polls reflect wider knowledge, but respondents disagreed on whether Title IX has led to enough progress in women's rights.

Bonnie Morris, a women's history scholar at the University of California-Berkeley, said its "undeniable" that Title IX opens doors for women, but the perception of progress is "skewed" by bolstered participation numbers. And women still battle bias, she said.

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"Now, we have critical mass of women trained and in the workforce, but still experiencing discrimination," Morris said.

That "critical mass" included 215,000 women in all the three divisions of championship college sports in 2020-21, compared to 73,000 women in 1982 -- the first year the NCAA sponsored women's championship sports.

A total of 167,000 men competed in 1982, and 275,000 competed 2020-21.

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Participation in girls high school sports has increased tenfold in the five decades since Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii, Rep. Edith Green, D-Ore., and Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., engineered Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 that President Richard Nixon signed into law.

As participation in sports grows, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights struggles to keep up with enforcement.

Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, told UPI its "overall staffing level has declined significantly over the last few decades, even as the volume of [Title IX] complaints received has grown exponentially."

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The civil rights office uses that limited staff to investigate an assortment of Title IX issues, which include gender bias in athletic programs, assault, sexual misconduct, housing discrimination, discrimination against pregnant or parenting students, rape, stalking and relationship violence.

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Enforcement is further complicated by college athletic departments that sometimes use deceptive measures, such as team roster manipulation, to take advantage of delayed enforcement.

For example, a recent USA Today analysis of more than 100 colleges discovered the creation of more than 3,600 opportunities for women without a new women's team being added.

Tactics uncovered at colleges to game Title IX included double- and triple-counting the same people, creating unnecessary roster spots and even counting male practice players as members of women's teams.

The mirage of equality through deception is one of the reasons why penalties, like withholding federal funding, often don't happen, the Title IX experts say.

Morris, the women's history scholar, said the NCAA and schools have used similar practices and cash-driven arguments to favor men's sports.

The NCAA acknowledges its resources go mostly to tournaments and sports that bring in the most revenue -- primarily men's teams -- instead of equal distributions for men and women.

"A lot of schools will say 'we really only want to fund sports that make money or bring an audience.' Traditionally, women's sports haven't had as much revenue production," Morris said. "It's a very complicated set of arguments."

Some contend the NCAA and schools favor meeting Title IX's "minimum" requirements instead of championing its spirit.

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Attorney Iciss Tillis, a former WNBA and Duke basketball player, said underwhelming resources and female athlete promotion stem from a lack of "desire," despite Title IX's intentions.

The NCAA provides guidance for athletic programs and tracks resources provided to men's and women's sports and athletic participation, but says it does not "enforce" following Title IX.

"The underlying issue still impacting women today is the true lack of a desire to make women's sports succeed in terms of marketing and publicity," Tillis said.

"It keeps getting missed. ... What happens is [the NCAA and schools] will go and do the bare minimum, but the spirit behind it is lacking. Look around 50 years later, and you can tell women are still negatively impacted by a lot of decision-making.

"The real issue is men genuinely don't believe women's sports are more important."

Tillis said the absence of college athletes calling for change also hinders progress. Oregon basketball player Sedona Prince recently proved that point, and her advocacy led to a full investigation of NCAA infrastructure.

Prince posted a viral video last year, which showed a single stack of weights provided for women, compared to a fully stocked men's weight room at the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournaments.

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The NCAA admitted it "fell short" of its responsibilities and hired the Kaplan Hecker & Fink law firm to conduct a review across all championship sports. The firm confirmed the NCAA's heavy bent toward "revenue-producing" sports.

"We concluded that the NCAA has not lived up to the principle of gender equity because of the structures and systems of the NCAA itself," the New York lawyers wrote in October.

The firm interviewed dozens of stakeholders and probed spending, marketing, fan engagement and corporate sponsorship habits. It said the NCAA "failed" to "identify, prevent and address gender inequities."

Lawmakers also continue criticize the speed at which the NCAA implements its commitment to advance gender equity. Tennis legend Billie Jean King, an original advocate for Title IX, continues to fight for fairness in sports.

First lady Jill Biden, U.S. soccer's Megan Rapinoe and University of South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley are among the many Title IX modern advocates.

Recent challenges to Title IX, however, have sparked debate over how its protections should prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

In 2016, the Department of Justice and Department of Education issued guidance about protections for transgender students -- a reminder that Title IX bans discrimination based on gender identity.

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In 2017, under the Trump Administration, those same departments rescinded that guidance, which applied to a wide range of activities like locker room and restroom use, equal participation and privacy.

President Joe Biden signed executive orders in 2021 to restore previous understanding of Title IX, "guaranteeing an educational environment free from discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual orientation or gender identity."

Trans athletes -- and their opponents in competitions -- experience varying results from lawsuits associated with protections afforded by Title IX.

Lia Thomas, a former University of Pennsylvania transgender swimmer, was a central subject of recent debates after she dominated the women's Ivy League season and claimed a national title.

The International Swimming Federation went on to ban post-pubescent male-born swimmers from female races, ending Thomas' hopes of Olympic competition.

The American Civil Liberties Union and International Olympic Committee are among the entities to cite Title IX in criticism of trans athlete bans.

Eighteen states have laws or rules that bar or limit trans competitors, and debates about competitive fairness rage on.

In 2021, a federal judge in Connecticut dismissed a lawsuit that sought to bar trans athletes from high school track. That decision noted that "courts across the country have consistently held that Title IX requires schools to treat trans students consistent with their gender identity."

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"Our nation has made tremendous strides since the passage of Title IX," Lhamon said. "We know that millions more girls and women now play on sports teams, attend college, become scientists, and receive the education they deserve than would have been true, but for the law.

"But we have more work to do."

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