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Equity in sports has focused on gender, not race. So gaps persist

While Black women are certainly beneficiaries of Title IX, which prohibited sex-based discrimination in educational settings, the door it opened for sports participation has disproportionately helped white women. Black female athletes remain generally underrepresented in most programs, particularly in sports like tennis, swimming and soccer.

By: New York Times |
July 1, 2022 9:56:08 am
Serena Williams, Title IX, black women sportspersons, Gender issues in sports, Race issues in sports, What is Title IXFILE — Serena Williams acknowledges the crowd at the French Open in Paris, June 6, 2021. Title IX, over 50 years, has heavily benefited white women over women of color — that’s partly because race has never been part of the law. (Pete Kiehart/The New York Times)

By Alanis Thames

In 1998, Traci Green and her Florida teammates posed with an NCAA women’s tennis championship trophy after defeating Duke in five of six matchups. Green, who received a full scholarship to Florida, smiled proudly, graciously.

“I knew I was a beneficiary of Title IX, due to the history,” Green, 43, said in an interview, recognizing the opportunities that the federal law had created for women and girls in sports since its enactment in 1972.

But Green also knew that she — a Black woman on a team full of white women — represented a small number of athletes.

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While Black women are certainly beneficiaries of Title IX, which prohibited sex-based discrimination in educational settings, the door it opened for sports participation has disproportionately helped white women. Black female athletes remain generally underrepresented in most programs, particularly in sports like tennis, swimming and soccer.

“It hasn’t changed that much,” said Green, now the women’s tennis coach at Harvard. She added: “On tennis teams, you’re not going to find more than one Black player.”

FILE — The women’s soccer team practices on Hitchcock Field at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., Aug. 29, 2019. Title IX, over 50 years, has heavily benefited white women over women of color — that’s partly because race has never been part of the law. (Adam Glanzman/The New York Times)

For all of the progress made through Title IX, many who study gender equity in sport argue that it didn’t benefit women across all races. White women, they point out, are the law’s primary benefactors, as the statute’s framing on gender equity — without mentioning the intersection of gender with race and income — ignores significant issues faced by many Black female athletes, coaches and administrators.

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“It’s sort of good news, bad news when you think of Title IX,” said Ketra Armstrong, a sport management professor and director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Michigan. She added: “We talk about gender equity, but if you look at the numbers, we see it’s white women who are breaking the barriers, who are ascending to these leadership roles to a much greater extent than Black women are, and that’s because we’re more comfortable talking about gender.”

Some experts in sports believe that Title IX cannot solve the racial disparities in athletics.

Simone Biles FILE — Simone Biles at the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics trials in St. Louis, June 27, 2021. Title IX, over 50 years, has heavily benefited white women over women of color — that’s partly because race has never been part of the law. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

“Title IX is strictly a gender filter. It’s hard to ask Title IX to solve a gap along the lines of race, or household income or any other category,” said Tom Farrey, a director at the Aspen Institute, which conducts research on youth and school sports in the United States. He added: “The question is do we need additional policies to address these gaps, and I would argue yes.”

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Others, like Armstrong, argue that issues of race and gender are tethered, and that Title IX conversations about gender are incomplete without including race because “it’s often the essence of their race that defines them.” She said she feels people see her Blackness first, not her gender, when she walks in a room.

“It has improved opportunities for Black girls and women, and that should not be diminished,” she said. “But let’s just not be misled to think that we’ve arrived, because we haven’t. There’s still unfulfilled promises of Title IX.”

According to the NCAA’s demographics database, white women made up the largest percentage of female athletes across all three divisions at 68% for the 2020-21 academic year. Black women were at 11%, and most were concentrated in two sports: Basketball, where they represented 30% of female athletes, and indoor and outdoor track and field (20%). Black women were barely represented in most other sports — 5% or less in softball, tennis, soccer, golf and swimming.

Carolyn Peck FILE — Carolyn Peck, women’s basketball coach at Purdue, watches her team practice in San Jose, Calif., March 25, 1999. Title IX, over 50 years, has heavily benefited white women over women of color — that’s partly because race has never been part of the law. (Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times)

“It’s harder to break into those sports because of these stereotypical notions of what sports Black girls play,” said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor at Penn State who focuses on Black women in sports.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 53% of the female U.S. residents enrolled in colleges in the fall of 2020 were white, and nearly 15% were Black.

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The divide in college athletics is in line with similar trends in youth sports.

A March study by the National Women’s Law Center found a big split in sports opportunities between high schools that were heavily white, with a student body at least 90% white, or heavily nonwhite, at least 90% nonwhite. The study found that heavily white schools had double the sports opportunities of heavily nonwhite ones. And for girls in heavily nonwhite schools, there were far fewer spots on teams than for girls in heavily white schools, the study said.

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The study said some of the gaps were “a strong indicator of lack of compliance with Title IX,” and that sports like volleyball and soccer, with less participation by nonwhite athletes, have been more likely to lead to opportunities to play in college.

Access and cost remain huge barriers to entry for girls of color. A boom in participation rates for girls in high school — 3.4 million in 2019 from 1.85 million in 1978-79 — significantly helped girls who lived in school districts that had the resources to offer more sports teams and opportunities. But girls of color, even those from middle class or wealthier families, often grow up in school districts with fewer opportunities.

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Coach Traci Green Harvard women’s tennis Coach Traci Green at the Beren Tennis Center in Boston, June 26, 2022. Green said the racial makeup of the sport “hasn’t changed that much” since she played for Florida and won a national championship in 1998. (Sophie Park/The New York Times)

Maisha Kelly, 44, the athletic director at Drexel and one of the few Black women to hold the top sports job at a university, said the only sports offered at her elementary and middle schools in Philadelphia were basketball and track and field.

“Access to sports and the kinds of sports that are offered weren’t offered in areas that were more racially diverse,” Kelly said. She added: “If I wanted to do other sports, it would require financial means, physical access in the way of being brought to an organization where I could participate.”

Kelly said that she was lucky to be introduced to swimming through the Philadelphia Parks Department, but that a lack of access to some sports for many young girls has contributed to “a disproportionate way that race shows up in certain sports.”

“It’s either not diverse because of socioeconomics, or it’s not diverse because of where the programming is,” Kelly added.

Most of the work still needs to be done at coaching and administrative levels, Armstrong said. In 2021, fewer than 400 Black women coached women’s college sports teams, compared with about 3,700 white women and more than 5,000 white men (and very few women coached men’s teams).

 Mihaela Marculescu A Harvard tennis player, Mihaela Marculescu, left, practices with women’s tennis Coach Traci Green at the Beren Tennis Center in Boston, June 26, 2022. Green said the racial makeup of the sport “hasn’t changed that much” since she played for Florida and won a national championship in 1998. (Sophie Park/The New York Times)

The disparities were even starker at the administrative level, and the trends persist even within sports that have the most Black athletes.

“The fight to be a head coach of a women’s basketball team for Black women has been severe,” said Davis, who added that a lack of Black women at administrative levels has a lot to do with racist stereotypes that they are not strategic thinkers. “They’re often most qualified having played and having been assistant coaches for a long time, and they are often the first fired.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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First published on: 01-07-2022 at 09:56:08 am

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