Fifty years ago, on June 23, 1972, Congress passed the Education Amendment of 1972. Legislation was put in place to create gender equity in education at all levels from college on down. Increased participation of women in sports wasn’t the intended effect, however, it was one of many that occurred in the aftermath of the law.
As the nation celebrates the historic anniversary of Title IX, The Athletic reached out to influential women in sports to discuss the impact of the law. Some spoke to the stark differences they noticed both before and after the law was passed and compliance became required (though not always enforced). Others spoke to their experience as female athletes who came after Title IX.
All were asked where Title IX can go from here, some of the weak points of the law that they’ve noticed and what it’s going to take to create true equality for women in sports moving forward.
(Some answers are lightly edited for clarity and brevity.)
It’s been 50 years since Title IX was enacted, could you tell us one story about the way that it has either tangibly changed your life or that of someone close to you?
Megan Rapinoe, U.S. national team and NWSL player: I feel like, for me, and probably a lot of people my age, it was one of those things that was a given, and I don’t even know taken for granted is the right way to say it, but it was just a given. It was just something that was there. Obviously, I got a scholarship, my sister got a scholarship, basically everyone that we knew at that level, we’re getting scholarships. So it was kind of just something I didn’t really know how it came to be. I don’t think before I went to college and, you know, probably even there, to be honest, and didn’t really understand that impact and how important it was and sort of how it changed the landscape. So I feel like we’re the ones that get to walk in a really nice, beautifully manicured field because other people are packing it down for decades before us.
Tara VanDerveer, Stanford women’s basketball coach: I would say honestly that my whole life, everything about my life, is because of Title IX. The fact that before that there really weren’t coaching jobs. So there was no such thing as a profession for women coaches. And so by having that job that has allowed me to work at a great university, buy a house, travel, you know, do everything ― my life is totally determined by it. … My timing for coaching was great; obviously for playing (it) was not very good, but my whole professional career has been determined by Title IX.
Nikki Fargas, Las Vegas Aces president: I started playing organized basketball at the age of 6. At such a young age, I was given access to play a sport I loved. We would compete at the local Boys & Girls Club every Saturday morning. While sports taught me how to handle winning and losing, it taught me so many other things. It taught me that I should believe in myself and that I was just as good (as), and in some instances even better than, the boys. I understood that I should be given the same opportunities as boys.
Adia Barnes, Arizona women’s basketball coach: I would not be in the position I am today without Title IX. I think that I have watched just the evolution of women. When I was growing up, there wasn’t a WNBA player. There wasn’t any professional women or really strong influential women that I could aspire to be. It was all men. I didn’t know any different when I was young. So throughout my life, I’ve watched the evolution of that. I was a part of the WNBA starting. That was the first step — although it’s not equal, the salaries are different, the venues, everything. But it’s still a start, and I’ve been a part of that.
At the college level, female athletes still receive 86,000 fewer sports opportunities and $148 million less in athletic scholarships. Why do you think this imbalance still exists, and what can be done to narrow this gap?
Rapinoe: I think about it in the context of all progressive legislation, to be honest. How impactful it has been and how much we know that it works, whether it’s Title IX or the Voting Rights Act or insert anything that has to do with inequality. But then the most important part and the most difficult part, the doubling down and the building on that foundation, I feel that I’ve been thinking a lot about Title IX, with the 50th anniversary … and all I’m left thinking is it’s so sad to me that we’re only celebrating Title IX and not celebrating the five other pieces of legislation or 20 other pieces of legislation. Could we have built upon Title IX? Yes. Do I think Title IX was hugely impactful and hugely successful? I think so, but there’s so many gaps still there.
There’s gaps in what Title IX addresses on college campuses around sexual assault and rape. And it’s similar to the Voting Rights Act – it works so well. And then we think – well, not we – I would say the Republicans and conservatives lawmakers around the country and the Republican party, in general, knows that it works so well, and that’s why they fight so hard against any sort of building upon the legislation. So to me, it’s almost a little bit bittersweet, because in terms of women’s sports … like why aren’t we building upon that? Why hasn’t there been more legislation going into the professional realm? … So for me, it’s disappointing and it’s frustrating knowing how well it’s worked.
VanDerveer: Title IX has never really been enforced. If there was enforcement of Title IX then I don’t think we’d see that disparity.
Fargas: This imbalance stills exists because there’s also a decline in our young girls participating in sports prior to entering college. We must look at the high school and the grassroot level and identify that why the disparity starts there. There should be constant accountability efforts and reports to make sure that the institutions are complying with Title IX. And if the law is being broken, then disciplinary action should be taken immediately. Those who are in the position of power/leadership should make it their priority and be intentional to narrowing this gap.
Barnes: This is one of the challenging things that I think that I don’t know how to resolve it. So we talk about Title IX. It’s an amazing thing. But I don’t think most colleges are Title IX compliant. So there’s no enforcement of Title IX. So we have Title IX. Yes, it’s created a tremendous amount of opportunities. But if a school is completely not doing the things or it’s unequal, I don’t think that’s being enforced. And that’s just my opinion. … Because I think you can ask any woman, like any woman that’s in this profession, if it’s even like close to being equal at their institution, and not one will say, yes. … We’re treated wonderfully (at Arizona). I think there’s factors. I think of things from a business perspective, like, man, they eat more, they probably need a little more food. They’re bigger, they’re taller; I get that. But I’m just saying across the board, from resources, it’s not comparable. And no woman would say that (it is).
Are there other blind spots of Title IX you’ve noticed? In your mind, what are possible solutions to achieve true gender equity?
Rapinoe: It was enacted 50 years ago, was it written by Black women? Was it written with gay people in the room? Was it written with differently abled people in the room? Were trans people in the room? Was (it) written with undocumented people? No, and as good as it could have been, maybe back then, we know it can be better now. So I think the blind spots are all of those things. It’s, how do we address systemic racism if you don’t have anybody who deals with racism in the room, you don’t have anyone Black in the room? Any people of color in the room? If you don’t have any immigrants in the room, those are the blind spots. If you don’t have gay people, trans people, differently abled, non-binary, those are the blind spots that I would see in everything.
VanDerveer: I guess I would say that I don’t know if the blind spot is the right way I think about it, but there’s not true gender equity because people, they don’t want it. I think that they rationalize away things. As an example: If there were true gender equity to me, like you said, women coaches would be paid the same as men coaches. But they rationalize, well, you know, there’s more money in men’s basketball or more money in men’s sports, they bring in more money. So it’s rationalized, even though a university is a nonprofit.
Looking at the NCAA last year, the amount of money that was spent on the men’s tournament versus the women’s tournament, you know, the disparity was huge. And it was unbelievable. But they’re like, ‘Well, we’re the NCAA, we don’t have to follow Title IX guidelines.’ There’s not the leadership or the enforcement or the leadership or the commitment to Title IX that I guess I would like to have seen.
Fargas: To achieve gender equity, we need to examine that inequality exists in our minds, biases, and prejudices. As a Black woman, the barriers we face are far greater. Outside of HBCU, Black women made up only 12 percent of all female athletes in 2020-21. The two sports where we have higher representation is in basketball and track. We now must address the socioeconomic factors that also lead to these disparities.
Barnes: I think ways to improve it and to get better is to talk about it. So this is a perfect year. Momentum is still going from the Final Four. So I think that that will slowly fizzle away soon, and then it’s not gonna be talked about for a while. So I think now with the 50th anniversary of Title IX , with the big news with soccer (USWNT equal pay), I think all of these things, it’s the right moment to make a push.
I think one of the biggest things that has to change is the infrastructure that the NCAA has implemented. So, for example, Tara and I played in the Final Four in the (2021) championship game, we came back to our schools with nothing. Yes, we both probably got raises from it personally, but if I was my male counterpart, I would have came back probably earning the school $10 to 20 million for multiple years. So that revenue sharing has to change. And most of us coaches did not even know what that infrastructure looked like or what it was, until it was brought to light a year ago. Like you should be able to invest in women, like we’re all lumped in the same investment. So let’s say Turner television, I’m just giving an example, they give $10 million. They give all this marketing for men. And then like the women, let’s say they’re $5 million on the women’s side, but it’s all lumped together, and there is no revenue sharing. So it’s like a flawed system, that won’t enable us to grow, because think about me coming back to the school with millions of dollars to give to the athletic department, then obviously, it’s just pure business, we’re gonna get better things, because we’re bringing in millions of dollars, right? I mean, Tara and I brought less than the 68 men’s team brought. So we’re saying the last team in the tournament brought back more money to their schools than us that played in the championship. So it’s just crazy. Like, we don’t bring money back. And so it’s just, of course, like, you make more money. It’s just pure investment. You put more money where you make more money. And so like, they’re not putting the money, they’re not making money. And I mean, at our game, like over 5 million people watched it. So it’s just all those things. And it’s important. I just think if like maybe Turner wants to get the men $10 million, maybe they only want to give women’s basketball $8 million, but that’s still $8 million more than being in a pot. And the women should get money off that.
What impact can NIL have on helping women college athletes achieve gender equity?
Rapinoe: I don’t really trust corporations or people with the money to do the right thing to say. Never do, but I think NIL has a huge opportunity to address or at least attempt to address or do their part to address inequity. So it’s like not only with gender inequity, but racial inequity as well.
VanDerveer: I don’t know that I know the answer to that right now. I think that one of the things (is): Is NIL going to really reward athleticism and your excellence as an athlete? Or is it going to continue to reward sexism, the looks of women … versus their competence? So, I think the jury’s still out on that.
Fargas: If the institution is helping athletes make NIL deals, then what they are doing for the male athlete, they should be treating the female athlete the same. But according to a report, 73 percent of NIL compensation goes to men. Again, as a Black woman, I represent only 12 percent of all of athletics.
Barnes: It’s just not going to be equitable because I think that more people watch men’s basketball, and NIL, the guys are gonna make more money. I think that’s just the business thing. And I think that’s the reality. And that’s OK. But I do think that it provides an opportunity for women to earn extra money and men. I mean, it provides an opportunity for athletes. To me, that’s not an equity thing. That’s an athletic thing. It’s like for all student athletes, and I think it’s a wonderful thing. I think it’s really changing us as coaches and you know our approach on things and how we recruit. But I think it’s more of an equitable thing for college athletes that has nothing to do with women in my opinion.
For those that, maybe, can’t see or feel the impact of Title IX, what would you say have been the biggest changes that have come from the legislation?
Rapinoe: It created an opportunity that my family wouldn’t have been able to do for me, especially having twins and wanting to put us both through college. We wouldn’t have been able to pay for that. … We were both — I would consider — elite soccer players, DI soccer players, but I think, especially me, yeah, maybe it would’ve worked out for me because … but it’s like (my dad) didn’t really know at the time.
Obviously I’ve gone on to have this great career, but like, I didn’t know that, my parents didn’t know that that was going to happen. And I think for them, they were like, we’re investing in you guys, and we’re going to put everything we have into your soccer career. Kind of like with the goal of us going to college and being able to get our college paid for, and then whatever happens from there happens from there. I’ve gone out to have an amazing career and super grateful and lucky to have that. My sister played all the way through college, and played one year professionally, but she definitely took much more advantage of the academic part of the scholarship than I think I did.
But that was the goal. And that was the path that was clear for us, if we do this and my parents invested in tournaments and driving and club soccer and everything that that entails with the explicit goals, “You’re going to get your college paid for. You need to go somewhere where you can get a full-ride scholarship, otherwise you’re either going to have student loan debt or we can’t pay for that.” So that was kind of the thought process, I think definitely for them. We knew that that was a goal. It wasn’t everything that we were thinking about at the time, but certainly for my parents, this is the possibility.
VanDerveer: Anyone that has a daughter, a sister, a niece, maybe even a mother and an aunt, which pretty much includes everyone, they have been affected by it. Because Title IX was not just about sports. I think, originally, it was really geared for medical schools and law schools to increase the attendance for women. So there’s not been anyone really in our country that probably in some way hasn’t been affected by it or the opportunities that it’s provided. So even if your niece doesn’t play sports, they did have the opportunity to play sports that they wouldn’t have had before.
I’ll tell you a quick story: At basketball camp, I have like 100 8-year-olds in a room, and I tell them, ‘When I was 8 years old, there were no teams for me to play on. There was no basketball camps for me to go to. The boys had Little League, but girls had nothing. When I was in junior high, there were no seventh- or eighth-grade teams, there was no freshman team, no JV team, no varsity team, no college scholarships, no pro.’ And I go on and on. And finally one little girl raises her hand and says ‘Why not?’ She’s incredulous. She’s looking at me like I have two heads. And I don’t know how to answer her so I said, ‘Can anyone else answer it?’ Another little 8-year-old raises her hand and goes, ‘sexism.’
So, it is a different world for these young girls and young boys. They can’t imagine girls not having teams. I think a big part of this has been the dads fighting for this. They look at their daughters, and they say, ‘Hey, why can’t my daughter play too?’ So we’re in a whole different world than 50 years ago, but we still have a long way to go. I just think that every decision that’s made, … you don’t have a big locker room for the boys and a tiny little one for the girls. It’s like everything should be able to be switched. And that’s kind of what Title IX says, in a way, you know; that if you were to do this, it would be whatever program you have for the girls, it would be OK for the boys. Whatever facilities you have for the boys, would be OK for the girls. You could switch back and forth.
It isn’t rocket science, but it’s money. It’s commitment. It’s a little bit of (the idea) that you value your daughters as much as you value your sons.
Fargas: The biggest impact is the opportunities, but there’s so much more work to be done. We’ve also proven that we can be successful when given the chance.
Barnes: The biggest change is the opportunity to play women’s basketball and have a scholarship and get a free education. I was on a panel yesterday (where) the woman two seats down from me had to do car washes and couldn’t afford — they had four Hall of Famers — could not afford to go to some national tournaments because they didn’t have the money. They were borrowing their parents’ cars for road trips, doing carwashes. And the men were on scholarship. I mean, that’s unbelievable to me. They had to make their own uniforms. I mean, we just walk into our equipment room and get our stuff. I wouldn’t have the job I have today. I wouldn’t be in this position, I wouldn’t have the free education. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play professionally in the States. There’s so many things that have changed our lives. I mean, 37 words to change our lives is pretty big.
(Top photo of Megan Rapinoe, right: Francisco Seco / Associated Press File)