In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: June 2012

photo of a running track


The Ethics of Title IX – Forty Years On

June 23, 2012 marks the fortieth anniversary of the Title IX Amendment to the [United States] Higher Education Act, also known as the "Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act". Title IX is the federal legislation that mandates equal access for women in education.

Title IX states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” It is intended to promote and establish gender equality in schools that receive federal funding.

Title IX has historically been interpreted by society at large and educational institutions as legislation aimed at sports, with the goal of equalizing the playing field for young women. However, more attention has recently been given to the role of Title IX in other aspects of education.

In this “Ethical Inquiry” we explore some of the questions and controversy surrounding Title IX and its impact on high school and college sports since it was adopted in 1972.

Title IX by the numbers

Since the legislation was enacted in 1972 according to the National Federation of State High School Associations there has been a 904 percent increase in the number of girls playing high school sports. There were 294,015 girls involved in high school sports in 1972, and 3.6 million boys. Today, that number has grown to 3,173,549 girls. There are still 1.3 million fewer girls participating in high school sports than boys, but much of that difference is made up by boys involved in football.

However ESPN notes that at the college level, females make up 55.8 percent of the undergraduate enrollment but only 41.7 percent of the athletes and receive $148 million less in athletic scholarships. In addition, in 2010 Division I schools spent a median amount of $20,416,000 on men's programs and less than half of that ($8,006,000) on women's athletic programs.

Equal funding or distorted budgets?

What role does funding play in legislation that is fundamentally supposed to create equal opportunities for all genders? Does “equal” spending really meet this goal, if colleges, particularly, are still trying to feed larger men’s athletic programs?

Bad for boys and men?

The issue of “equal” funding between men’s and women’s programs is one that has been extensively debated by both sides. As the 2003 New York Times op-ed  “Wrestling with Title IX” by acclaimed author (and member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame) John Irving demonstrates, there is a vocal opposition to Title IX that argues the legislation leads to cuts in funding and quality for small-budget men’s programs such as wrestling. This contingent maintains that freeing up money for women’s teams correlates with lower costs and lower standards for men’s sports. Irving contends that while athletic programs are capping men’s rosters and eliminating walk-on athletes in order to fill rosters for women’s teams, women are statistically not as interested in participating in intercollegiate athletics to the same degree as men.

Irving also asserts that Title IX, in practice, actually invites discrimination against male athletes. By trying to achieve gender proportionality, men’s collegiate sports are being “undermined and eliminated,” in fundamental opposition to the original intention of the legislation. Kevin Bracken, a wrestler who competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics after his college wrestling program was cut in 1995, summed up this criticism of the legislation last month on "How could you hate something that's creating opportunities and helping people? But how could you celebrate something if it's also hurting people?"

Necessary to reduce discrimination within budgetary constraints

The Women’s Sports Foundation and the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) contend that Title IX works to create a system where everyone must make do with a smaller piece of the budget pie in order to ensure equality between male and female sports teams. The NWLC points out that 72% of schools that added teams from 1992 to 2000 did so without discontinuing any teams. Both organizations state that reducing excess expenditures on the most expensive men’s sports (football and basketball) will allow schools to use the savings in order to expand opportunities for the underrepresented gender, rather than cutting smaller budget men’s programs.

Furthermore, the Women’s Sports Foundation argues that there should never be an economic justification for discrimination and new revenue streams should be considered in order to make programming the most effective and equal for all involved.

Reevaluating Title IX in the 21st century: meeting objectives or creating unintended consequences?

Does Title IX create unequal and potentially harmful athletic experiences for young women? Is providing the opportunity structure, through mandated funding, in and of itself the right ethical decision? When looking at the positive and negative consequences of Title IX, 40 years later, does the legislation need to be changed or maintained in order to adjust to today’s realities?

Bad for girls and women?

In “How Title IX Hurts Female Athletes,” (The Atlantic) Linda Flanagan and Susan H. Greenberg discuss whether Title IX has had unintended and negative consequences for young female athletes. They argue “Title IX has inflicted significant collateral damage, including increased health risks for the players, a drop in the number of women coaches, and increased exposure to sexual abuse.”

Health risks are attributed to higher concussion rates, overuse injuries (including a greater rate of anterior cruciate ligament or “ACL” tears) and eating disorders among young women.

In terms of coaching, while Title IX has increased opportunities for female players, the authors point out that the number of female coaches has actually declined overall. In 2010, only 42.6 percent of women’s teams were coached by women.

In some cases, the lack of gender equality in coaching can lead to an increase in risk for sexual abuse. For example, since 1999, 36 coaches from the U.S. national swim team have resigned or been banned from the sport following allegations of sexual misconduct or inappropriate sexual behavior.

The United States Sports Academy has written about the development of the Alliance of Women Coaches, an organization specifically targeted at improving the landscape for women coaches in all sports at all levels.

Benefits girls and women?

Peg Pennepacker, athletic director at State College Area School District in Pennsylvania and the Title IX consultant for the Pennsylvania Athletic Directors Association argues on the website of the National Federation of State High School Associations that girls playing sports “reap a myriad of social benefits. Par­ticipation in sports provides females with the benefits of physical fitness and overall health. It builds leadership skills, teaches teamwork and develops character…. It has been shown to decrease obesity, increase educational and employment opportunities, and lead to higher self-esteem.”

In addition, involving young females in sports has “shown to reduce prejudice against women, which al­lows for more extensive social integration into society. This devel­opment increases networking, job opportunities and social opportunities in general.”

Pennepacker states that in 1971, before Title IX, “women earned less than 10 percent of law and medical degrees, and just 13 percent of doctoral degrees. Today, women earn nearly half of all law and medical degrees, and more than 50 percent of all doctoral degrees. And, this advance­ment is attributed to the revolutionary change in women’s entry in unprecedented numbers into all areas of society. The law remains critical as it contains guarantees of equality for women and girls in other areas of education beyond athletics.”

Overall, Pennepacker maintains participation in sports “can be the catalyst for change” while emphasizing that Title IX is an education law, not just a sports law. “It’s not just that the people who are going to do well in life play sports, but that sports help people do better in life,” she writes.

The 2010 New York Times article “As Girls Become Women, Sports Pay Dividends” examines two studies that look for concrete evidence of these views. A study by Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, focuses on Title IX and national trends in girls’ sports on a state-by-state basis. Dr. Stevenson showed that the changes set in motion by Title IX explained about 20 percent of the increase in women’s education and about 40 percent of the rise in employment for 25-to-34-year-old women. In addition, a study by Dr. Robert Kaestner, an economics professor at the University of Illinois, found that the increase in girls’ athletic participation caused by Title IX was associated with a 7 percent lower risk of obesity 20 to 25 years later.

Other questions

Today, the ramifications of Title IX are stretching beyond the realm of athletics to include sexual violence policies and academics. Recent controversial developments under the Obama administration include guidance regarding how colleges must respond to allegations of sexual violence. In this way Title IX has “shifted onto a different patch of contentious terrain.”

In addition to sexual violence policy changes, Title IX has spurred debate surrounding academic quota systems, particularly with regard to the sciences.

Final Thoughts

For four decades Title IX has had a significant impact on the way young women and men participate in high school and college sports. As our society continues to discuss and examine gender inequality, Title IX will likely continue to be evaluated as a tool intended to prevent discrimination in the United States education system. Throughout this process, it is important to question at what point funding and policymaking cross the line from being necessary and ethical to intrusive and negative for both girls and women, and boys and men.

Have suggestions for additional content that looks at the ethical issues surrounding Title IX? Let us know:

This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was researched and written by Vicky Negus ’12.