Categorized | Women in Sports

From the Field to the Classroom

Ashley Carter (L) was the captain of the Yale women

The effect of Title IX on the girls who play sports


When Christine McQuillen was a sophomore in high school, she would spend summer days at the outdoor basketball courts in Tenafly, N.J., a suburb adjacent to her hometown of Bergenfield. Often, as she warmed up at one end of a court, she’d see a group of players, often all male, gathering at the other. Though she describes herself at that age as “very quiet and shy” in general, McQuillen would invariably walk over to the group of strangers to tell them, “If you need an extra player, I’m down there.”

McQuillen went on to play college basketball at Division III King’s College in Pennsylvania. The girl who, off the basketball court, once avoided talking to grownups she didn’t know now spends her days talking as a third-grade teacher.

When Title IX was passed in 1972, it aimed to provide equal opportunities for women in the educational environment, including opportunities to compete in intercollegiate sports. Title IX offers women the opportunity to reap the benefits of playing competitive sports, and to bring those benefits to the educational and career opportunities now open to them. At the same time, those opportunities can be limited by some of the same factors that draw criticism of the men’s college athletic scene.

The one consensus among scholars is that Title IX as a whole has been a success. Theresa Walton, an associate professor at Kent State University whose studies focus on power relationships in sports, says in a phone interview that Title IX is “the most successful civil rights legislation that’s ever been passed.” (All interviews were conducted by phone.) Marie Hardin, associate director for research at Penn State’s Center for Sports Journalism, calls it “radically, extremely effective.” As measured by opening up opportunities for women to get the same education as men, no one questions the value of what Title IX has done.

Some of the secondary benefits of the law, however, are up for more debate. There’s no doubt, for instance, that one effect of Title IX has been the creation of opportunities for women to enter professions—medicine, law, engineering, the sciences—that had previously been dominated by men. Because the educational equality afforded by Title IX gave women the chance to study such professions in the first place, the law is doubtless responsible for creating those opportunities. Less certain, however, is the significance of athletics in promoting these new opportunities. Mary Curtis, assistant athletic director for the University of Iowa, argues, “I don’t think that’s so much a sport thing as the broader law.” Walton, similarly, says she’d be “reluctant to assign too much [credit] to sport” for the expansion in women’s job horizons. Though many agree with Hardin that “the experience that women get in sports can certainly translate to some of the parallel challenges that they might find in their careers,” it appears that the consensus is that the choice of those careers isn’t greatly influenced by an athletic background.

In one specific area, though, it seems likely that the athletic opportunities of Title IX have had a more direct effect on women’s career choices. Women who venture into the still predominantly-male world of sports journalism have, at the least, probably benefited from the changes in attitude towards women in the world of sports that Title IX has helped to create. Hardin suggests that as sports themselves become an appropriate pursuit for women, that fact in turn makes sports reporting a more plausible career path. Moreover, though she says that research in this area has been “limited,” the evidence she’s seen “shows that a lot of women in [sports journalism] played sports when they were younger.”

Regardless of any effects on what careers women choose, the sports opportunities created by Title IX for women have had a profound effect in shaping the lives of those athletes. Curtis says that when you talk to former athletes, “they would credit their sport experience, good or bad, with shaping who they are.” Probably the most commonly cited benefit that women take away from their athletic careers is an increase in self-confidence. Christine McQuillen, who credits sports with helping her “go outside the shell” of her own shyness, is only one example of the many women who have learned to credit their own abilities thanks to the chance to score a goal or sink a free throw. Sophia Merrifield captained Yale’s women’s soccer team this year. She recalls attending leadership conferences at which, initially, she was “respected for being a good soccer player.” By the end of the conference, when people had heard her opinions, she was instead “respected because I had something to say.” She credits her soccer experience with giving her “more confidence than I ever would’ve had going forward.”

A related benefit of athletic experience is that sports can help the women who play them learn to handle adversity. Merrifield says her soccer career has taught her “how to weather ups and downs.” Ashley Carter, who served as captain of the Yale women’s basketball team this year, points out that in sports, it’s a common occurrence to find that “there isn’t the right energy or your team isn’t clicking together.” As an athlete, she says, you have to “figure out in these 40 minutes how to get yourself back on track and your team back on track,” and that resiliency and adaptability has helped her performance off the court as well.

Another much-ballyhooed benefit of sports for women, one often cited in men’s sports as well, is that sports teach teamwork and appreciation of others. Merrifield, who acknowledges “I like to lead things,” says that outside of sports, her athletic experience has helped her “appreciate what other people are bringing to the table.” Among the pre-college set, McQuillen has observed that boys tend to be more accepting of girls who play sports, treating them as “peers and friends” rather than a different species. On the other hand, Carter suggests that a similar dynamic persists even among adults. She recalls a conversation with a recent Yale alumna who had played basketball, and who had gone on to a business career. She said, Carter notes, that she’s found men to be “more willing to include” her because she has an athletic background and can communicate in the sports-heavy language they prefer to use.

Playing sports, especially at the college level, can also offer women a crash course in time management. Merrifield notes that the enormous time commitment of practices, games, team meetings and the like “teaches you to balance something that you want to do” and makes you think about what your priorities are. For her, being “exhausted on a day to day level” by the time pressures of her sport is balanced by “just [being] able to go out every day and run around, play a sport I love.”

But for women as for men, access to sports at the college level is not without its downside. One major concern about the athletic benefits of Title IX is whether they have come at the expense of its academic benefits. This issue, of course, is not exclusive to female athletes; male college players have been accused of ignoring the “student” in “student-athlete” far more loudly and regularly. Nevertheless, the effects of playing sports on the college education of female athletes shouldn’t be overlooked. Walton worries that women, especially at the Division I level, are being steered away from more challenging majors so that they have more time to devote to their sports. Jean Carpenter, professor emerita at Brooklyn College, is blunter still: “We set both sexes up for failure,” she says, “particularly in Division I.” Merrifield, graduating with a double major in physics and mechanical engineering, would seem to provide a notable counterexample. Nevertheless, she comments that “In my experience, the amount of athletes taking what would be considered harder majors is very low.”

Another question of growing importance for women’s sports, as for men’s, is whether the scholarship funding allocated to sports is reaching the students who need it most. In men’s sports, stories like that of Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose—who grew up in a gang-ridden neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, but used basketball to escape to something better—highlight one of the potential strengths of the scholarship system. Women’s sports observers say that they see that narrative playing out less often on the women’s side than the men’s, largely because the ultimate goal is different. While men are using the college scholarship as a stepping stone to multi-million dollar professional contracts, women by and large have no such pot of gold to pursue. Instead, suggests Curtis, women are “more likely to get an education as they go through college.”

Common to the women’s and men’s versions of the scholarship-as-a-way-out, however, is the increasing problem of the price of admission. Many high-profile sports at the college level—notably basketball, soccer and volleyball among women’s sports—have elaborate and increasingly entrenched systems of club or AAU teams at the high school level that feed into those college teams. McQuillen, for example, notes that her daughter is playing AAU basketball as a fifth-grader; in her own youth, she says, AAU didn’t even start until 11th grade. Walton sees these expensive layers of pre-college training as a “structural barrier to athletes with harder backgrounds.” And while Curtis lauds the “middle income families [who] scrape together what they can afford” to help their daughters make it in a sport like volleyball, she recognizes that for women as for men, the money that goes into scholarships may sometimes go to the players who have spent enough money to get it.

Probably the most-debated negative side of Title IX is its effect on men’s sports. The law’s financial requirements are frequently cited by athletic directors as they cut men’s programs for which funding has run low. Carpenter says it’s an “inaccurate perception” that Title IX has decreased opportunities for male athletes. She sees athletic departments using the law as a “scapegoat for changes that have to be made anyway.” And for all that male athletes may grumble at the funding their sports no longer receive, they’re unlikely to be able to claim that women’s sports are getting more than their share.

Ultimately, Walton suggests, “there’s nothing about sport that’s positive or negative; it’s how sport is used that creates those outcomes.” Although Title IX’s introduction of sports opportunities for women has exposed them to some of the same dangers as male college athletes, it’s also given them the chance to learn the same positive lessons that male athletes can learn. Carter, the Yale basketball player, suggests that the advantages of Title IX’s sports provisions are worth the negatives that come with them. Commenting on the time commitment of playing a sport and the damage it may have done to her classwork, she says, “I think what I’ve gained from basketball is much more important than a few better grades.”

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