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Title IX Protection is Not an Elite Privilege

In 1972, only 15 percent of college athletes were women, while girls made up only seven percent of high school athletes. To many Americans, this division made sense. Women and girls don’t want to play sports, said popular logic. Girls naturally prefer tea parties to soccer games. And why would “co-eds” waste time at practice when they could be in the hair salon, gearing up for the real collegiate competition - husband hunting?

Fast forward forty years: Today, women make up approximately 43 percent of NCAA athletes, while girls represent 42 percent of all high school athletes. It’s a classic case of “if you build it, they will come” – as girls and women have been introduced to opportunities in sports, they have jumped on them. And yet, the playing field is still not level, and groups are still trying to undermine the law.

For some groups of students, barriers to gender equity are especially high. As the New York Times recently pointed out, community colleges across the country, (who generally serve a more economically and socially diverse student body than do traditional four-year colleges) continue to short change women in their athletic programs. According to the report, many such schools offer a number of sports teams to men, yet only a single sport for women.

On Monday, the Independent Women’s Forum defended this discrimination as “common sense,” pointing out that women at community colleges are more likely to be working moms, etc.

This response is offensive on several levels, but, first, it misses a crucial point: Yes, women in community college may be more likely to face barriers to athletic participation than are women in traditional, four-year colleges – but the same holds for men in community colleges. Men in two-year schools share similar demographics as women in the same institutions.  

Second, I think the World Cup this weekend proved that many working Moms have a passion for sports – it wasn’t only the professional athletes that celebrated the near-perfect ascent of the U.S. Women’s team this year, the blogosphere was full of working mothers cheering them on.

Yet, not only does the IWF’s response perpetuate gender-based stereotypes, it has the potential to exacerbate other existing divisions in athletic participation, involving race, ethnicity, and social class. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 45 percent of community college students are minorities, 42 percent are part of the first generation in their family to attend college, and 80 percent of full-time students work at least part time. While demographics at community colleges are changing, their student bodies are less likely to draw from affluent communities than are four-year colleges.

To dismiss the enormous gender disparities occurring at community colleges contributes to stereotyped depictions of low-income, immigrant, minority women and girls as uninterested in sports and competition.

Unfortunately, this bias is not new. Women and girls of color continue to face barriers to athletic participation. At the high school level, less than two-thirds of African-American and Hispanic girls play sports, while more than three quarters of Caucasian girls do. Three quarters of boys from immigrant families are involved in athletics, while less than half of girls from immigrant families are. And participation discrepancies between genders are more pronounced in low-income communities in general. These divisions have dangerous consequences.

Research shows that women and girls who play sports reap benefits that extend to career and academic success throughout their lives. Women in community colleges may be some of the students who could stand to benefit most from athletic participation. If schools choose to invest resources in sports for men and not women, they are denying these many benefits to their female students.

For that reason, protection under Title IX isn’t a privilege – it’s a civil right. The federal law may have been made famous for ensuring equity in the division of athletics scholarships at major public universities and elite private colleges – but its mandate of gender equity applies equally to the schools - no matter the composition.

This isn’t the first time gender-based stereotypes have been used to argue against expanding opportunities for female athletes – let’s not let recycled versions of the same biases dominate the next round of gender equity discourse.

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