Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Title IX and African-American Female Athletes

I have written before about Title IX as it relates to sports. A while ago, a reader sent me a link to an article written by Emmett Gill Jr. discussing Title IX and its effects on African-American female athletes.

For starters, can I just say that I have to give any man props who is able to write about Title IX without simultaneously bitching about how it has supposedly harmed or ruined men's sports. Neat. Anyway, the following article starting off promising and raised some good points, yet I also found it unsatisfactory in other areas.

Gill's article "The Prevalence of Black Females In College Sports: It’s Just An Illusion" begins:

"...Black female participation in college sports has increased 955 percent in the 35 years since Title IX, which requires colleges to provide equal sports participation opportunities to women, became law. However, Black female student-athlete participation is, for the most part, limited to two sports: basketball and track. Ninety percent of Black female student-athletes compete in one of those sports....In women’s soccer, lacrosse and rowing, the sports that have experienced the most growth because of Title IX, White women outnumber Black women 11,692 to 594. During the 2004-2005 academic year, only 47 Black females competed in Division I lacrosse and merely 23 in field hockey."

Those statistics are cause for mixed feelings. On the one hand, it's great that there has been such a significant increase in sports participation among African-American college women. Yet, it is troubling that this participation is limited largely to only two sports.

At the same time, however, while we're mentioning upper-class sports like rowing, lacrosse, and field hockey, none of which were offered at my predominately white rural high school by the way, we should be acknowledging that class-based factors are also at play here. I mean, I'm white and I didn't even know that there was a sport called "crew" until I went away to college. My experience is anecdotal, I know. Yet, could it be that predominately black high schools don't have lacrosse teams for the same reason that predominately blue-collar white high schools don't? Money.

My point is that merely looking at the disparity in participation across different sports from a race-based lens is inadequate. Keeping in mind that white families are more likely than black families to be in higher socioeconomic brackets and thus, more likely to be able to put their children in sports like lacrosse and crew and attend schools in which these sports are offered, it would be interesting to look at a sport-by-sport breakdown of female participation by the socioeconomic status of her family.

My purpose here is not play Oppression Olympics by invoking sympathy for poor white kids at the expense of black children. Racial disparities are bad. Clearly. But at the same time, class-based disparities are largely invisible in our nation precisely because we insist on viewing everything through the more visible lenses of gender and race. So, while I agree with Gill that Title IX has been insufficient in completely eradicating participation barriers for African-American female athletes, while we're looking at participation disparities in various sports I think it's time to also start looking at the disparities that occur because of socioeconomic status.

Gill continues:

"There are a litany of factors and circumstances that have contributed to the ever-increasing inequities between Black and White female student-athletes: the ownership of Title IX by White advocates to the exclusion of Blacks; the inaction of Black feminists who fail to acknowledge the importance of sport in the lives of Black girls; the role of poverty in Black female sports participation; and the staggering amount of investment required to rectify the situation.

However, what is most concerning is the unwillingness of the most influential Title IX advocates to simply make the public aware that Title IX has not resolved the racial inequities of female student-athletes. Title IX advocates preach male-female equity, but have been largely silent about racial inequity....

Title IX advocates, who are overwhelmingly White, are so out of touch that it is unlikely they have any idea of the cost associated with achieving equity between White and Black soccer players.... During Lopiano’s 1993 speech, she presented a 16-point plan to help increase Black female participation in sports. Almost 14 years later, Lopiano, the premiere advocate for women in sports, has neglected to implement any of the components of her master plan."

For starters, I think that Gill's accusatory tone is misplaced. Blaming participation disparities among African-American women on, in part, those advocating greater participation for all women oddly and unfairly blames the some of the few who are even trying to rectify the problem. I mean, let's not forget that Title IX, as Gill admits, increased "Black female participation in college sports" by 955%. Hardly a number to scoff at. Throwing in an abstract phrase like "the ownership of Title IX by white advocates" without further explanation does not help anyone adequately address the issue. Does he mean that African-American women don't have a voice in women's sports advocacy? Does he mean that white advocates don't care about African-American women?

Or, does he mean that white advocates (or all advocates?) of Title IX should try to get it amended to include prohibitions on racial discrimination? I mean, Gill criticizes Title IX advocates for being "silent" about racial disparities but at the same time, by its very definition, Title IX it is a law that merely prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. In order to address racial disparities, Title IX would have to be amended with a similar prohibition on race-based discrimination.

Lest anyone be mistaken, I'm not trying to say that African-American women should just be happy with the current state of affairs since they've already made significant gains. The data shows that racial disparities exist when it comes to female participation in sports and these disparities are not acceptable. But at the same time, race and class-based disparities are more difficult to address since they are caused by, to use Gill's words, "a litany of factors and circumstances."

Rather than criticizing Title IX for being inadequate, let's celebrate what it has given so many women. And while we're doing so, we should use it as a stepping stone to create more opportunities for women of color and those in lower socioeconomic classes.

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