Counting Ponytails

We need progress toward gender equity in athletics, but the current debate isn't helping, writes Welch Suggs.

July 19, 2007

The Title IX debate has gotten truly tedious.

Every time a college drops an athletic team, and every five-year anniversary of the law, the cycle starts up again. Newspapers publish a spate of stories, some praising and some condemning the law. Someone files a lawsuit or a federal complaint. A few Web sites and radio shows weigh in. Right now, we’re just past the 35th anniversary of Title IX, and you need only turn to Google News to see where we are in the cycle.

The points are always the same. Proponents say that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 -- which bans sex discrimination at educational institutions receiving federal funds -- is written clearly and merely needs to be enforced to ensure equity for women without endangering men. Opponents say the government has created incentives for colleges to drop men’s teams in sports like wrestling and and the regulations for the law are based on unrealistic expectations of women’s interest in athletics.

Proponents say that if colleges just didn’t spend so much money running football teams and hiring high-dollar coaches, a whole raft of sports for men and women would be affordable. Opponents say that the market should dictate what sports colleges offer, and that many more men are interested in varsity sports than women. Proponents respond with the “Field of Dreams” argument -- “if you start teams, women will come.” Opponents want to know why colleges should be forced to dash the dreams of dedicating young men to give hollow opportunities to women who don't really want them.

This argument then gets circular or it gets vicious, and either way, I’m tired of it. On the one hand, I’m frustrated at seeing so many of the track teams I raced during my college years dropped. On the other and much more pertinently, my eight-week-old daughter is trying to settle down to sleep in the next room, and I want to know how this debate is going to help her realize the benefits we all know come from participating in sports -- youth sports, high school sports, and perhaps at the college level.

Right now, the situation is getting us nowhere. Ultimately, all we ever talk about is the number of men and women playing sports at a given institution, and whether the women's number is as high as it ought to be. Raw participation numbers occupy a pretty small portion of the U.S. Department of Education's Title IX regulations, but the overwhelming majority of news stories, debates, and lawsuits filed in this area -- as well as recent research published by the Government Accountability Office -- can be reduced to counting ponytails. Meanwhile, disparities between men's revenue sports and all other sports continue to grow, while participation opportunities for women have stagnated.

Enough. Parents, coaches, and athletics administrators need to take a fresh look at what gender equity really means. Rather than focusing on participation statistics, it would be helpful to remember that Title IX forbids denying anyone the benefits of such a program or subjecting them to discrimination on the basis of gender, not merely excluding them from participation. If policy were based on the assessing the benefits of participating in sports -- measuring the quality of participation opportunities, not merely the quantity -- we could move a long way toward fulfilling the promise of Title IX.

We in higher education aren't very good at assessing student outcomes, and we're desperately worried that someone (i.e., the government) is going to make us start. In athletics, though, any institution can take a discrete group of students and test the hypothesis that participating in sports teaches skills and shapes attributes that can be invaluable in later life: teamwork, self-discipline, confidence, and leadership skills, to name a few. I know I learned those traits as a college athlete, as did my teammates.

Nobody has developed, or at least popularized, a credible way of assessing whether a given coach is actually teaching these lessons to his or her athletes, or how well a particular athletics department is doing in this regard. But one of the key issues should be whether women are getting meaningful experiences in athletics, not merely participation opportunities.

To this point, both critics of Title IX and athletics directors note the difficulty in finding women to compete. Women, they say, won't stick with a team if they aren't starting or in key roles, while men are happy to stand on the sidelines as fourth-stringers. Some teams, however, do have success in attracting and keeping women, even those in non-starting roles. I interviewed a coach once who regularly had 30 women or more on a varsity soccer team, and this coach told me about valuing the contributions of each one.

We need to figure out what makes teams successful at providing positive and meaningful experiences for young women--as well as for young men. It may well be that different styles of coaching, different college and departmental environments, or different recruiting methods and philosophies produce more or less successful experiences for athletes. We don't know, because these issues have not been studied systematically on a large scale. There have been some descriptive studies that touch on these issues, notably that published in The Game of Life and Reclaiming the Game, both written by William G. Bowen and his former colleagues at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the unpublished SCORE and GOALS projects conducted by the NCAA.

Where we find differing outcomes for male and female athletes, we will find Title IX issues, and these issues are likely to go beyond head counts of athletes. We would find inferior coaches for women's teams. We would find disparities in equipment budgets, practice schedules, and facilities. In short, we would find the many everyday instances of discrimination that are overlooked in favor of debating ponytails.

More to the point, we also would find what makes the best coaches as good as they are, generating pedagogical research that would benefit other sports and indeed many faculty members, if they would deign to recognize that they have much to learn from their colleagues in athletics.

During research for a book on Title IX a few years ago, I found countless examples of sports becoming a job -- for girls and boys alike. At the high school level, kids compete on school teams, club teams, perhaps in Olympic development programs, and with private coaches, all for a shot at the all-important college scholarship. The time commitment can run to 40 hours a week or more, on top of school, and that doesn't count driving all over town in rush hour.

This does not seem to be the model that best teaches all the skills and traits we want to give young athletes. It may (or may not) be good at developing elite athletes, but we see too many players being run off in favor of the next hot recruit. Too many kids quitting sports cold when they get to college, out of exhaustion or burnout. Too many colleges making decisions on coaches, game schedules, and other athletic operations based on marketing potential rather than athlete welfare.

Higher education needs to learn how to assess student outcomes, and athletics programs need to learn how to assess athlete outcomes. The good part is that some mechanisms in athletics are already in place for this kind of work. First, of course, are graduation rates, which despite the NCAA’s best efforts to obfuscate them are the most obvious measure of collegiate success. Many if not most athletics directors conduct exit interviews with outgoing seniors, and academic tutors and life-skills counselors get to know athletes quite well over the course of an athletic career. What is needed is a way of systematizing this knowledge and using it intentionally to evaluate coaches and operations. This would be a good opportunity for scholars of education and management to work with athletics to improve and document practices.

This is the road to gender equity. The more we base decisions on improving the experiences of individual athletes, the more we come to see men and women as students in different classes in our athletics programs.

This may sound ridiculously naive, but it isn't. Colleges won't stop throwing good money after bad in the quixotic pursuit of prominence in football and men's basketball, and non-revenue sports for both men and women will continue to suffer in the current system. In the short term, my proposal can't address problems like sports being dropped, rosters being capped, and the ongoing disparities for women. In the long run, however, coaches, athletics directors, and college presidents will learn which athletes are benefiting from their experiences and which ones aren't, and hopefully why.

That knowledge can help improve the experiences of current athletes and, over time, cement beliefs the educational value of participating in sports. With an increasingly skeptical public and Congress, the best chance we may have of preserving college sports is to apply rigorous standards for education and equity.

As parents, my wife and I aren’t going to push our daughter into anything. But as athletes ourselves and as students of Title IX, we’re going to make sure that she knows her options and, hopefully, that she can tell the good options from the bad. And that she won't be counted merely as a ponytail.


Former journalist Welch Suggs wears many hats, but the most relevant here are as author of A Place on the Team: The Triumph and Tragedy of Title IX (Princeton University Press, 2005) and as a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education.


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