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Title IX: Advances for women of color in sports are under the law

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When Tina Sloan Green took over the lacrosse program at Temple University in the years following the passage of Title IX, the landmark gender equality law, she never stopped thinking about the girls who weren’t playing.

While training in the 1970s, Sloan Green, the first black woman to coach a college lacrosse team, noticed neighborhood kids peering through the fences at their players while guards kept them away. And when high school athletes were welcomed to the university’s fields for training camps, most were white, hailing from predominantly white suburban schools.

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“It was very, very upsetting for me to see that,” she said. “And that was – that was the reality I had to face… Title IX was a complete help for women in sport, but there were still differences in my opinion.”

For girls of color, some women’s college sports, such as lacrosse, horseback riding, rowing, or even softball, are ones they are unlikely to be exposed to in elementary school. The reasons vary, although availability and cost can pose major challenges for youth programs.

Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX and in the years since the landmark law was passed, profound strides have been made in getting women and girls involved in sport. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, women now make up 44% of all NCAA athletes, compared to just 15% in 1971. Nearly 3.5 million high school girls play sports, compared to fewer than 300,000 in 1972.

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For black women and other women of color in sports, these gains have not been shared equally, reflecting the limitations of a policy that only addresses gender-based equity.

“We say very often that sport is a microcosm of society,” said Karen Issokson-Silver, vice president of research and education at the Women’s Sports Foundation. “Whenever systemic racism emerges in the wider society, on top of gender discrimination, it is reflected in the sports ecosystem.”

An early barrier to pursuing athletic opportunities in college and beyond is as simple as exposure to the sport.

Natasha Watley, a black woman who is a two-time Olympic medalist in softball, started playing when she was 5 years old. She didn’t have a black teammate until she was a teenager and said there were so few black girls to play with her and went on college teams that she could count on one hand.

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After the UCLA graduate returned from the 2008 Olympics, Watley recalled speaking to young girls about her experiences.

“There’s one young girl I’ll never forget — a young little African American girl, she puts her hand up and says, ‘Ms. Natasha, your story sounds amazing, but what is softball?” Watley said. “She had no idea what softball was.”

According to the US Census Bureau, the median household income in 2020 for white, non-Hispanic families was $74,912, compared to $55,321 for Hispanic families and $45,870 for black families. Factors like income contribute to a racial clustering phenomenon in which women of color are overrepresented in sports like track and field that have lower entry costs, said Courtney L. Flowers, associate professor of sports management at Texas Southern University.

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“Even middle-class families don’t send their children to schools that have access to an equestrian team,” she said. “For those reasons, we typically push African-American women into women’s basketball and track and field.”

The injustices carry over to leadership roles. While 34% of women’s team head coaches are white women, only 7% are black women. Among athletic directors, only 4% are black women, compared to 20% of white women.

Candice Storey Lee, the first black woman to be an athletic director at Vanderbilt University, said a single policy like Title IX without follow-up action could not be expected to bring justice to the field.

“We know that a law alone will not change behavior,” she said. “You need people committed at all levels to get the result you want. I wouldn’t blame Title IX for that, but I would say we still have work to do in our own communities to ensure everyone has access.”

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Those differences in college leadership and athletic opportunities start early in life, said Neena Chaudhry, general counsel and senior advisor for education at the National Women’s Law Center. A study published by the center found that 40% of the nation’s public high schools are highly segregated, enrolling either 90% black or 90% white.

In schools that predominantly serve black students, there are far fewer opportunities to play sports, and the disparities between boys and girls are more pronounced — 40% of high schools that predominantly serve black students have large gaps in opportunity for girls in sports by comparison 16% heavily white schools. The odds gap is the difference between the percentage of places on teams that are allocated to girls and the proportion of students who are girls, with differences of more than 10 points being considered a large odds gap.

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Research shows that, in addition to physical health, girls who play sports are more likely to have higher levels of self-esteem, stronger collaborative skills, and better academic performance. But the differential approach to athletics through both community centers and the rising cost of youth sports make schools an important place to attract young girls of color to athletics, Chaudhry said.

“All students need to go to school, and this is really a place to offer opportunities that some students wouldn’t get otherwise,” she said. “Not everyone can afford to pay for sport outside of school… It’s really important that schools provide equal opportunities for these opportunities. It is both important and required by law.”

Sloan Green, who co-founded the Black Women in Sport Foundation in 1992, said expanding access to young black girls, especially between preschool and eighth grade, was critical. At Temple, she expanded her camps and recruited from communities that had been overlooked, including neighborhood children. Having role models who reflect girls of color and widely share their achievements is also critical to getting girls onto the field, Sloan Green said.

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In Southern California, Watley established the Natasha Watley Foundation to introduce girls in marginalized communities to softball, which serves approximately 1,000 girls each year. Aside from the cost, the main concern she hears from parents is that they are not sure the sport would welcome their daughters. Watley said she wanted young girls to know that the sport could be a place to thrive in college and beyond.

“More than anything, I wanted to make sure that girls are introduced to the game, that they understand that the game is for them, that it’s a place for them,” she said. “There are possibilities beyond your imagination that this game can offer you.”

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For more on the impact of Title IX, see AP’s Full Package: https://apnews.com/hub/title-ix Video Timeline: https://www.youtube.com/watch?vNdgNI6BZpw0

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Ma, from Charlotte, North Carolina, writes about education and justice for AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/anniema15. Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.

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The Associated Press’s coverage of race and ethnicity issues is supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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