The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most Americans support gender equity in sports scholarships, poll finds

Members of the U-Conn. women's rowing team rallied about being cut by the university after the season in 2021. While Title IX has improved participation in women's sports, women still have fewer opportunities to play college sports. (Brad Horrigan/AP)
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As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, two-thirds of Americans say they know “not much” or “nothing at all” about the federal law that bans discrimination on the basis of sex at schools that receive federal funds, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.

Nonetheless, there is broad support for its mandate as it relates to gender equity in sports, with 85 percent saying they believe colleges and universities should be required to award the same number of athletic scholarships for women as they do men, according to the poll, which was conducted May 4 through May 17 among 1,503 people across the United States.

More than half of Americans (55 percent) “strongly” support such a policy. Title IX does not require colleges and universities to provide an equal number of athletic scholarships to men and women but mandates that financial assistance be proportional to their participation in intercollegiate athletics.

About two-thirds of women (66 percent) “strongly” support requiring colleges and universities to provide an equal number of athletic scholarships for women and men, compared with less than half (44 percent) of men.

Elysia Mitchell, 29, of Santa Barbara, Calif., is among the women who strongly support requiring equal sports scholarships for female athletes.

“If it’s not required, I think a lot of people just do what they think is best,” Mitchell said. “As history has shown, that has usually cut a lot of women out of opportunities.”

Support also differs along party lines. More Democrats (92 percent) than Republicans (79 percent) support requiring colleges to provide an equal number of athletic scholarships to men and women, though the partisan divide is much smaller than on many political issues.

Jenkins: Title IX’s greatest achievement wasn’t equality. It was possibility.

The poll was conducted as the nation marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which was enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on June 23, 1972.

The law has undergone five decades of evolution since as the courts, Congress and presidential administrations have periodically clarified its meaning and broadened and, at times, constrained its scope.

While it has significantly expanded the participation of girls and women in sports, Title IX has not been fully realized or uniformly enforced.

Tennis star Billie Jean King and first lady Jill Biden spoke in D.C. on June 22 ahead of the 50th anniversary of Title IX. (Video: The Washington Post)

Fewer than 300,000 girls played high school sports in 1971-72, before Title IX was enacted, according to a report from the National Federation of State High School Associations. That number increased more than tenfold by 2018-19, to 3.4 million. Yet surveys from 2010 to 2015 find that among 12th-graders, the percentage of girls who participate in high school sports (60 percent) still lags behind that of boys (75 percent), according to a report from the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Women’s participation in college sports also has soared since Title IX. Today, women account for 44 percent of NCAA athletes, compared with 15 percent pre-Title IX, according to the WSF report. Yet women are still underrepresented among college athletes as they made up 58 percent of undergraduate students in 2020, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Post-UMD poll finds that more than half of Americans (54 percent) feel colleges and universities have “not gone far enough” to give female college athletes equal opportunities as male college athletes. Another 37 percent say it has been “about right,” while fewer than 1 in 10 (8 percent) say colleges and universities have “gone too far.”

Just over three-fourths (76 percent) of Black people say colleges have not gone far enough, compared with 54 percent of Hispanic people and 51 percent of White people.

About two-thirds (65 percent) of Democrats say colleges have not gone far enough to give female athletes equal opportunities compared with 39 percent of Republicans.

One-third of Americans (33 percent) say they know “a lot” or “some” about Title IX, while two-thirds (67 percent) say they know “not much” or “nothing at all.” These findings about Americans’ lack of awareness of Title IX are barely changed from a 2011 CBS News/New York Times poll.

Among those identifying themselves as “avid sports fans,” a slim 52 percent majority say they knew at least something about Title IX. Men are more likely to say they know at least something about Title IX than women (38 percent to 27 percent).

Awareness of Title IX peaks among current or former college athletes (55 percent), people with higher incomes (53 percent of those with incomes of $100,000 or more) and those with four-year college degrees (50 percent).

As for the understanding of the law, a 57 percent majority of those who said they knew at least something about Title IX correctly said it applies to discrimination based on gender. Just over one-third (36 percent) incorrectly said it applies to both gender and race discrimination, while just 3 percent incorrectly said it applied to discrimination based on race.

Christopher Torson, 39, a former high school football player who describes himself as an avid sports fan, said he has heard of Title IX over the years but doesn’t have a clear sense of its meaning.

But as a matter of fundamental fairness, he said he believes colleges should offer women the same scholarship opportunities to compete in sports as men.

“As far as I’m concerned, women can play sports just as well as men,” Torson said. “Why shouldn’t they have that opportunity?”

One third of Americans (35 percent) say they had watched a women’s sporting event on TV or over streaming services over the past six months, including 41 percent of sports fans and 55 percent of avid fans.

The most popular women’s sports to watch include basketball (38 percent who watch women’s sports watched this), any women’s Olympic sport (38 percent), gymnastics (37 percent) and tennis (34 percent). Another 25 percent of women’s sports viewers watched volleyball, while 24 percent each watched soccer or ice skating and 23 percent watched softball.

More Black people watched women’s sports (51 percent) than Hispanic (38 percent) and White people (32 percent).

But there is hardly any gender difference, with 36 percent of men and 34 percent of women saying they had watched women’s sports in the past six months.

More former high school varsity athletes (47 percent) and college athletes (66 percent) watched women’s sports than those who didn’t play sports in high school (30 percent) or college (33 percent).

How the NCAA women’s Final Four was born

Title IX was nearly derailed soon after its adoption, with the NCAA and its allies in Congress challenging its legality. The college sports governing body, along with its allies in Congress, perceived it as a threat to the funding of football and men’s basketball.

The law weathered that challenge and subsequent challenges from advocates of men’s Olympic sports, such as wrestling, swimming and gymnastics, who argued in the early 2000s that its enforcement led schools to cut men’s sports teams, limit roster size of men’s teams and otherwise discriminate against men.

In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Title IX, a host of advocacy groups, such as the Women’s Sports Foundation, founded in 1974, are celebrating its passage in an effort to educate high school and college athletes, parents, coaches and administrators about the law. The goal is to prepare the next generation to press for full implementation and defend the law against future attempts to roll it back.

Currently, less than half of women’s college sports teams are coached by women. About 3 in 10 Americans say this is a problem, including just under 2 in 10 who say it is a “major” problem.

When asked whether they support or oppose allowing women to compete for sports on specific men’s college sports teams, 64 percent of Americans support women competing for spots on men’s swimming teams, 61 percent support this for baseball teams, 59 percent for men’s basketball teams and 47 percent for football teams.

Lauren Kroeger, 25, of San Francisco who competed in track and field in college, said she was “made very aware” of Title IX while an undergraduate.

“Its purpose is good; the meaning behind it is good,” Kroeger said. “You learn team building; you learn to work with each other. Sports teaches students a lot of things you can’t necessarily learn at a desk — social interactions and leadership — skills that can be applied in other circumstances.”

The poll was conducted online May 4-17, 2022, among a random national sample of 1,503 adults by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement. The sample was drawn through SSRS’s Opinion Panel, an ongoing survey panel recruited through random sampling of U.S. households. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.