March Madness: How Title IX Just Totally Rocked Your Sunday

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

South Carolina's Tiffany Mitchell (25) and Alaina Coates (41) react after defeating Florida State in a women's college basketball regional final game in the NCAA Tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina, Sunday, March 29, 2015. 

At two minutes to go, Tiffany Mitchell dribbles to the top of the court and passes to teammate Aleighsa Welch.

Welch takes the ball through the middle for an inside layup. South Carolina is up on Florida State, 69-67.

Then with a little more than a minute on the clock, Mitchell makes a three-pointer. South Carolina is leading 72-67.

Taking on Florida State in this year’s March Madness competition, South Carolina is the first of the elite eight to make to the final four, with a final with a score of 80-74. Over the length of the entire game, South Carolina led for less than four minutes.

Mitchell went into the final two minutes of the game with 14 points under her belt. Then she scored seven more.

Seeing the sport played at such a high level by women athletes, you might assume that competitive women’s basketball is a century-old tradition, as it is for men’s teams. But women of the Baby Boom generation never had a chance to play at this level, and neither did women athletes before them. Not until the passage of the federal civil rights law known as Title IX in the early 1970s did most big universities field women’s varsity teams. The same went for most high schools.

“Before 1972, women’s and girl’s sports were practically non-existent,” says Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel and director of equal opportunities in athletics at the National Women’s Law Center. “We didn’t have anything like we see today.”

Passed in 1972, Title IX prevents sex discrimination in education, and has been breaking open doors for women for 43 years. Regarding athletics, Title IX, according to the website of the National Women’s Law Center, requires schools to:

(1) provide male and female students with equal opportunities to play sports, (2) give male and female athletes their fair shares of athletic scholarship dollars, and (3) provide equal benefits and services (such as facilities, coaching, and publicity) to male and female athletes overall.

In short, “Title IX requires overall equality when it comes to opportunity to play,” says Chaudry.

But even with Title IX's enactment, the playing field, so to speak, did not automatically level out where that field encompassed the allocation of resources between male and female athletes.

Note a lawsuit that parents of Michigan high school students brought against a state scholastic athletic association in the late 1990s.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association had been scheduling a number of girls’ sports during the non-traditional season—including basketball, which they scheduled in the fall.

“And we all know that basketball is a winter sport,” Chaudhry explains. “[That’s why] we have March Madness,” she explains, referring to the popular term for the basketball championship games run by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Because Michigan high school girls were playing basketball during a time of the year when the boys’ teams and girls on teams in other states were not, they were disadvantaged if they hoped to play on a collegiate team. When college basketball coaches began scouting in the winter, female Michigan high school players had already finished their seasons.

And they really weren’t able to take advantage of the thrill of March Madness, Chaudhry explains. “They didn’t get the benefit of that incredible buzz that we have at this time of year,” Chaudhry notes. “I’m a huge basketball fan. I went to [University of] Maryland. I’m watching nonstop. Girls weren’t able to get that.”

Ultimately the parents won the case, Communities for Equity v. Michigan High School Athletic Association, in 2001. The judge found that “…the practice of scheduling only girls’ sports, but not boys’ sports, in disadvantageous and/or non-traditional seasons sends the clear message that female athletes are subordinate to their male counterparts, and that girls’ sports take a backseat to boys’ sports in Michigan.”

Michigan High School Athletic Association shortly thereafter changed the girls’ high school seasons to align with the boys’.

“But that was just in the last decade or so. So people think everything is fine now, I think that’s example of an inequality that still exists,” notes Chaudhry.

Budgets, she explains, are another area that is very much skewed towards male athletes. Nationally, 70 percent of all the money being spent on sports on the college level is still going to men’s teams and male sports. And while the 30 percent of college athletic budgets going to female athletes is a large improvement from the 2 percent that funded women athletes before Title IX, that’s still quite a gulf.

So as you watch every play they make, every layup, three-pointer, interception, rebound, and assist, it’s important to note that without Title IX, these women wouldn’t have had the same opportunities to play.

In fact, they didn’t have an opportunity to play in March Madness until 1982, when the NCAA held its first women’s basketball tournament.

Because of Title IX, Tiffany Mitchell can score 21 points in a game to help advance her team to the final four—and sponsors will pay to advertise during the game, so you and I can watch it on television. And little girls can watch powerful women compete fiercely, and dream of doing the same. Women’s March Madness reigns.

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