Why Title IX matters

Monday was Patriots Day in New England, or more specifically for those in the running world Boston Marathon Day.

And here’s a stat you probably didn’t think about — 42 percent of the more than 26,000 runners who registered for the Boston Marathon were women.

Consider that 30 years ago they were officially banned from running in the race.

How times have changed.

Women now comprise about half of all runners in road races, with larger percentages in the half marathon and 5K distance.

The increase in the marathon, according to Running USA’s statistics, show that in 1980 women comprised only 10 percent of participants. In 1995 (the same year that Connecticut’s women’s basketball team first went undefeated to win the national title) the percentage increased, but still was at only 26 percent. Now, it’s up to 41 percent.

In 2009, women were the majority of runners in 5k (54 percent), 10k (51 percent) and half marathon (57 percent).

Why the increase?

There are plenty of theories but no solid research. Typically, we begin with an individual women’s quest to lose weight, as the lead to a story on the increase of women runners in The Philadelphia Inquirer illustrates.

But there are other theories. The boom in charity races. The increase in the number of women-only races. The social aspect of running and running clubs.

And, perhaps sometimes overlooked, the actual opportunity to run.

Let me repeat that — participation increased steadily over years when women were given the opportunity to race.

And this, dear friends, is why a strong Title IX is important for women’s athletics.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced it would strengthn what is referred to as the third prong for schools to comply with Title IX — the 1972 law which outlawed gender discrimination in educational programs and activities receiving federal funds, including athletic programs on all levels.

(For an excellent primer on all that is Title IX, check out the Women’s Sports Foundation.)

To summarize — schools have three ways of demonstrating they are in compliance with Title IX:
1. Proportionality: The percentage breakdown of male/female student-athletes reflects the percentage breakdown of male/female students in the general population.
2. A history of continuing to add new sports for women.
3. Demonstrating that the school has met the interests and abilities of its female student population.

Schools only need to fulfill one of the ways (often referred to as “prongs”) to be in compliance with Title IX and the Bush administration made it easier when it allowed schools to use a simple survey to measure the interests and abilities of its students.

A low response rate, which is typical of online surveys, would be enough to show lack of interest.

Because at the heart of the Bush administration change was an assumption that girls and women were not as interested in playing sports as their male counterparts.

The Obama administration still allows for surveys of interest but the actual survey must be wider in scope, taking into account feeder schools and recreational leagues along with the views of coaches and administrators.

As a New York Times editorial pointed out: “The wider approach recognizes the link between expressed interest in sports and actual sports opportunities on campus. Students who want to play field hockey, for example, are less likely to apply to a school with no field hockey team.”

It can be a slow build in our results and outcome-based minds, we want numbers, and we want them quickly, to show that providing these opportunities for girls and women in sport is beneficial (and cost efficient).

But opportunity is difficult to quantify. Ask any woman who has completed a 5K or played on a high school sports team and she will likely have at least some tale of how the experience impacted her life. It’s anecdotal and qualitative — but it’s real. And it makes an impact not just in individual lives but in the lives of family, friends and communities.

In the 1980s few women were running marathons, not because they were physically incapable or because they didn’t want to but because they lacked opportunity. The were missing the chance to get into races, to train and missing the connection of seeing other women do it. They missed the inspired which comes from seeing other women tackle a life-changing physical endeavor.

Given the opportunity, we are all capable of changing ourselves, changing our lives and impacting the world around us. For some of us, that spark comes from athletics.

And access to that, from grade school soccer teams to collegiate basketball scholarships to mid-life running careers, should be available to every woman.

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