Holding firm on Title IX

Watching my daughter play basketball on her school team is a thrill I owe to Title IX, which, 35 years ago this month, banned gender discrimination in school athletics.

Back when Olympic gold medal basketball coach Tara Van Derveer was in high school, she had no team on which to play.
Though ranked fourth in the nation, tennis legend Billie Jean King could not get an athletic scholarship.

Today, as a result of Title IX, almost 3 million girls play competitive sports in high school, compared to fewer than 300,000 before it was enacted. Similarly, when Title IX was passed, just 32,000 women competed in college athletics; they got only 2 percent of their schools’ sports budgets and no scholarships. Today, the number of female college athletes has exploded to nearly 170,000; they are eligible for scholarships and get real budgets with which to practice, receive coaching and generate fan support.

Now some far-right ideologues come along wanting to weaken Title IX. Well, they are going to have to fight me, my daughter, hundreds of thousands of female athletes, millions of parents and 82 percent of the American people who favor keeping Title IX in place. Public support for Title IX is both overwhelming and intense. Nearly two-thirds strongly support the law, whereas fewer than one in 10 strongly oppose it.  

Support is not only deep, but wide, crossing the political spectrum.  While 86 percent of Democrats favor the law, so do 78 percent of both Republicans and independents. Three-quarters of men and large majorities in every part of the country back Title IX.

Americans acknowledge the unmatched contribution of Title IX to the development of women’s sports, but also recognize much remains to be done. Nearly one-quarter of Americans (22 percent) are personally aware of recent situations in which unequal treatment has occurred. That is striking. More than 50 million adults personally know about a situation where female athletes in high school or college are suffering discrimination — and 95 percent would support those who took action to redress the inequity.

These people are not wrong, of course — discrimination does continue. In Division I schools, women’s teams receive only 37 percent of the sports budgets and just 32 percent of the recruiting dollars.

High school teams face similar inequities. Until this year, girls in nearby Largo, Md., who wanted to play softball had to trek far from school to practice, while boys practiced baseball near their building. Moreover, the girls’ field, unlike the one enjoyed by the boys, lacked proper drainage, a batting cage, dugouts, an outfield fence and protective capping on the fences — and the girls’ coach had to cut the grass himself to ready the field for the season. Thanks to a Title IX settlement between the National Women’s Law Center and Prince George’s County schools, all that changed, “Transform(ing) Dreams to Fields,” in the words of a Washington Post headline.

A Michigan mom took successful legal action after watching two daughters miss out on college volleyball scholarships. The reason was neither poor grades nor lack of talent — their high schools forced girls to play outside the regular season, at a time when college coaches were not making the recruiting rounds.

Such stories abound, but because only a handful of people know the steps to take to exercise their rights, relatively few complaints come to the Justice Department. Instead of trying to weaken Title IX, allowing the progress to be lost, it is time for the Justice Department to take real action to encourage and enforce compliance with a law that has proved its worth, providing parents and fans with countless hours of joy and women with real opportunities to succeed.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.