The first half century of Title IX—the Gender Equality Act of 1972 that outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded educational institutions—has seen women’s sport in America undergo a period of profound growth and development.
The brief legislation essentially required school sports programs to provide equal opportunities for women, compared to their male counterparts, and the effect was immediate. The ratio of girls to boys participating in high school sports nationwide rose from 8 percent in 1971-72 (before the law was passed) to 53 percent a decade later, and the NCAA saw a similar rise (from 18 percent to 44 in cent) at the college level. Since then, it’s been a long, gradual ascent toward equal sharing – although there are a lot of roadblocks along the way, and level investment has been much harder.
It’s helpful to look at where the growth in women’s sports is coming from on a sport-by-sport basis, and how that has changed over time. Here is the total participation of girls in high school sports over four-year intervals for more than a dozen popular sports over the past 20 years, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations:
Many of the most popular girls’ sports in 2018-2019 – the latest data in an NFHS survey – were those that made huge initial gains immediately after Title IX and were already among the most popular by the mid-1970s. For example, track and field, volleyball, and basketball were in the top three in 1975-1976, and are still the three most popular sports practiced by girls today. (The order has simply changed: volleyball has become a little more popular than basketball over time.) So, in a sense, the idea of a sport that girls “must” play in – or at least have the most access – was already well established at the time of Title IX’s creation and has remained in place ever since.
But there are exceptions. Tennis was the third most popular high school girls’ sport before the ninth title, but only ranked seventh in 2018-2019; Although its participation has grown 628 percent since 1971-1972, its share of all girls’ high school athletes has fallen from 9 percent to 6 percent. Meanwhile, soccer has gone from a sport with just 700 participants in 1971-72—representing just 0.24 percent of all American girls who played sports in high school—to 394,105 in 2018-2019, which ranked fourth among all sports and accounted for 12. Percent of all high school math. As my former colleague Ben Morris wrote during the 2015 Women’s World Cup, soccer has been one of Title IX’s biggest success stories, with the massive increase in girls’ participation directly helping to cement American women’s dominance on the international stage in subsequent generations.
Basketball is perhaps the most interesting leading factor in the advancement of Title IX in the development of women’s sports – particularly in the diversification of sports that girls can access or see themselves playing. As noted, it remains the third most popular sport to play at the high school level, with about 400,000 participants and a 12 percent share of all high school female athletes. But that share has been steadily declining over time, from 45% in 1971-72 to just 23% a decade later, 15% in 2006-2007, and now even less. Track and field are similar (down from 26 percent of all high school athletes in 1975-76 to 16 percent in 2018-19), and even volleyball has fallen a bit from its peak of 16 percent in 1990-91 to 13 three years earlier. . As numbers of other sports increase, top sports have to share more sports talent at their disposal – and there are more opportunities to showcase that talent than ever before.
We can see this in how relatively easy or difficult it is for a high school athlete to go on and play in college. The NCAA does not have complete participation statistics available prior to the early 1980s, but we can catch the data trail there. In 1982-83, the ratio of American girls participating in high school sports to Division I athletes on the women’s side was 53.4—in other words, only 1 in 53.4 girls who played in high school could expect to play college in high school. level one. This number was 41.3 on the men’s side, which means that playing in college as a sport was more difficult than playing in college. (The disparity was slightly smaller when looking beyond the DI to the NCAA overall, but it still tended to be more difficult to make for women.)
But this trend has changed over time, as college play on the women’s side became easier from the mid to late 1990s. By 2019, the ratio of high school female athletes to DI players was 39.2, which means there are many more opportunities for aspiring athletes than there were nearly 40 years ago. (The same can’t be said of boy athletes, 45.8 of whom played in high school in 2018-19 for everyone who played in DI, a tighter percentage than in the early 1980s.)
This reflects a convergence in the number of women and men athletes at the college level, with the former having been 88 percent of the second on DI in 2018-2019 — parity has been achieved in participation in a handful of popular sports, while approaching it in others.
|Swimming / Diving||0.90||0.92||1.02||1.19||1.37||1.37||1.43||1.40||1.53|
|Trace and scrutinize||0.60||0.66||0.80||0.95||1.06||1.13||1.19||1.22||1.25|
|Softball / Baseball *||0.32||0.33||0.38||0.49||0.51||0.52||0.56||0.58||0.59|
But the overall picture is not quite as rosy as it appears from these participation numbers at the top level of the college math pyramid. As a naive estimate, we would expect women to outnumber men in most sports if the opportunities were really equal, since 1.3 women are enrolled in college for every man. Instead, we continue to see variations in the opposite direction, particularly in so-called revenue sports such as basketball and football – which carry more athletes than any women’s sport by a factor of more than 20 percent. This, in turn, has helped to show some of the large financial disparities between men’s and women’s sports that have been revealed in recent years.
Pure participation is also less equitable in Sections Two and Three than in Section One. The overall NCAA ratio of female to male athletes is just 78 percent, and that includes the largest number of DI. It’s even less balanced in high school. Of the seven sports listed above, parity in participation has been achieved or exceeded in only two at the US high school level as of 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already begun to undo some of the gains made in women’s sports over the decades. The latest NCAA reports show that women’s sports participation at the Division I level in 2020-21 declined 0.72 percent, the first time it has declined year-over-year since 1989-1990. (By contrast, men’s participation increased 0.79 percent despite the pandemic.) The decline was even steeper (-2.66 percent) across all NCAA divisions, giving last year the largest seasonal decline in women’s collegiate sports participation since 1986-87.
As always, these statistics provide reasons for frustration and optimism. It’s true that women’s sports have grown by leaps and bounds over the past 50 years, and Law IX is almost certainly the biggest factor driving that increase. The numbers also show how much progress has been made in expanding the range of sports that attract top athletes, with sports like lacrosse and competitive spirit (which don’t always qualify for Title IX) among the fastest growing high school girls’ sports over the past decade, as well as To the phenomenal rise in football since the early days of Title IX. There are now far more opportunities for aspiring athletes to play at the college level, in a sign that the rapidly developing pool of talent on the part of women is being fully utilized.
However, Law IX has gone a long way to achieving parity in participation – far below par in funding – or ensuring that women’s sports can weather a crisis like the pandemic without some athletes falling through the cracks. It is clear that some challenges will require more than half a century to be resolved.