The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Title IX’s interpretation has reshaped athletics in good and bad ways

An unexpected impact of a seminal law

Basketball player Sydnei Caldwell of the Pennsylvania Quakers attends the inaugural IX Awards in Las Vegas on June 17. The IXs celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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This month marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law that protects students and educators from sex-based discrimination in federally funded educational institutions.

Lawmakers modeled Title IX around Titles VI and VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. During the legislative discussion over the law, members of Congress were chiefly concerned with addressing women’s exclusion from higher education, sex bias in textbooks and discriminatory practices in faculty hiring.

The bill did not specifically reference athletic programs, but once Title IX became law, debates over implementing it swiftly centered on its application to interscholastic and intercollegiate sports. Though Congress indicated its vision for Title IX in integrating classrooms, its lack of forethought about sports left bureaucrats unprepared to craft policy for athletics. Debate across the 1970s heightened fears about the consequences of integrating athletic teams, leading to policy guidelines that promoted deeply sex-segregated teams that, over time, undermined the goal of full sex-based equality.

Even so, the implementation of Title IX dramatically reshaped American athletics. Since 1972, women’s intercollegiate athletic participation has expanded roughly 12-fold, with the formation of thousands of teams for girls and women. Similarly, the athletic participation of girls in high school has markedly increased. About half of girls graduating from American high schools now do so with significant athletic experience compared with one in 12 girls in 1971.

Beyond sports, women’s educational attainment has mushroomed at all levels. Sports play an important role in higher education attainment and its lifelong benefits. Data shows that girls with athletic experience probably will enroll in college, participate in the workforce as adults and enjoy a healthy adolescence and adulthood.

But tension over how to implement Title IX and who will benefit remain, 50 years after it was passed. Research shows that girls and women of color and those from lower-income families are much less apt to enjoy either access to sports or to their spillover benefits. Transgender women and girls are openly targeted for exclusion from competition by a swell of state laws passed since 2020. That leaves interest groups, scholars and everyday Americans increasingly grappling with the uneven legacies of Title IX.

Among the many changes to the organization of school-sponsored athletics, one feature remains extremely durable: the reliance on sex segregation for training and competition.

The road to finalizing federal policy guidance in 1979 was not exactly straightforward. The meager legislative discussion of athletic inequalities came to the forefront when the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) began drafting implementation guidelines in 1973. Lacking a robust trail of legislative intent on sports, initial policy guidelines provided negligible direction. Policymakers quickly realized that participation opportunities for girls and women in school-sponsored sports were wildly outpaced by those provided for boys and men.

Even so, initially, federal policymakers considered minimal interventions to the status quo. In a July 1973 memo, HEW Secretary Caspar Weinberger suggested that women should be allowed merely to try out for existing men’s “noncontact” teams. The memo argued that if women failed the tryout, schools were not required to establish a separate “women’s team” to meet women’s needs. This proposed policy might have enabled limited sex integration, but it avoided structural change. The same structures that had long denied women and girls access to training, coaching and development opportunities would have gone unchallenged by Weinberger’s vision.

At the same time, activists began emerging from the liberal feminist movement. On issues of athletic inclusion, the movement was neither a highly structured nor institutionalized lobbying force. Activists had not yet become embedded in the policymaking process with access to legislators and department officials to provide key advocacy perspectives, nor capable of mounting a sweeping response to questions of policy design. But some activists, including Bernice Sandler, who had been instrumental in the passage of Title IX, began shifting their focus to sports.

Sandler and Margaret Dunkle, organizing through the Project on the Status and Education of Women (PSEW) of the Association of American Colleges, wrote an important policy document on the topic of athletic equity in 1974. In the paper, titled “What Constitutes Equality for Women in Sport?” PSEW argued for strict enforcement of Title IX’s nondiscrimination provisions with regard to athletics without explicitly taking a stand on “mixed teams.” PSEW outlined the perceived strengths and weaknesses of promoting segregated sports using logic premised on the notion that women and men were “different” types of athletes in need of separate and different teams. However, they conceded that segregation would better serve the “average female” more so than the “superior woman athlete.”

The National Organization for Women (NOW), fresh off the legal battle to integrate Little League Baseball teams and years of advocating to pass the federal Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), emerged as the most pro-integration feminist group. On the one hand, its policy documents reveal that the group feared women’s abrupt incorporation into sporting spaces would require them to meet the long-standing, ostensibly gender-neutral standards for team tryouts and physical strength. NOW acknowledged that generations of male-centric athletics left girls and women initially underprepared for that challenge. Although it stopped short of demanding full integration in the initial stages of policy implementation, it noted in 1974, “NOW is opposed to any regulation which precludes eventual integration. Regulations that ‘protect’ girls and/or women are against NOW goals and are contradictory to our stand on the ERA.”

However, advocating for immediate and full integration, in addition to possibly disadvantaging the average girl, would have also required that activists confront entrenched male interests. This included mediating the concerns of coaches and athletic directors who were already mobilizing through the NCAA against Title IX’s more modest implementation. Even the most active women’s groups, including NOW, PSEW and the National Coalition for Girls and Women in Education, found themselves advocating for a “difference-based,” sex-separate approach to creating athletic opportunities for women. Doing so ensured they did not lose to established interests that favored men.

In 1979, the Education Department interpreted Title IX as mandating that schools create “women’s” teams where they were historically lacking. This interpretation has remained largely static in the four decades since. This has ensured that women largely compete in separate competitive venues from men.

Since 1979, the robust discussion among feminist groups on the question of sex-integrated sports has largely been forgotten. By implementing Title IX without abruptly treating women precisely “the same” as men — by offering merely tryouts to historically male teams — policymakers probably avoided deepening women’s exclusion. Yet, by not creating policy pathways aligned with NOW’s concern that eventual integration would ultimately best serve the most skilled women athletes, so, too, did they foreclose opportunities for women to directly challenge sexist assumptions about their innate inferiority to men through integrated competition.

Sex segregation, cemented by policy design and through years of practice, has also narrowed contemporary possibilities for transgender and nonbinary athletes who seek full inclusion in school-sponsored teams that align with their gender identity. Since 2020, conservative lawmakers in a majority of American states have introduced bills to ban gender-diverse students from school-sponsored teams, proposing genital examinations to determine athletic team eligibility in multiple states. To date, 18 states have passed laws banning trans athletes from segregated teams for girls and women — a deleterious outcome that might have been avoided had NOW’s long-term vision for even partial integration been realized in the ensuing years.

We now live with the fraught legacies of this sex segregation. Resource distributions favor men’s teams. The lack of contact between women and men suppresses men’s emergence as allies in the fight for equality. And cultures of androcentrism, or the prioritization of men, dominate contemporary athletics. Impending policy debate and discussion should examine this history to grapple with the future and advance the quest for gender equality under Title IX.