This week I came to a conclusion — thank God for Title IX.
Two recent readings caught my eye, and they both included prominent figures in U.S. women’s basketball.
Cheryl Reeve penned a poignant essay in The Player’s Tribune detailing her experience as a girl with a passion for sports who became (and remains) the current coach of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx. She referred to 1996 as a magical year for women in sports. The women who competed in that summer’s Atlanta Olympic Games were among the first to grow up under Title IX.
“People were saying the Summer of ’96 forever changed the way Americans saw women’s sports,” she wrote.
The New Yorker profiled Becky Hammon, the first salaried full-time female to coach in NBA history. Currently, she is serving as an assistant coach for Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs.
Within the piece, journalist Louisa Thomas brought attention to Hammon’s decision to play for the Russian Federation in Beijing’s 2008 Olympics after she was passed over by Team USA. While Lisa Leslie and the team’s head coach, Anne Donovan, believed Hammon was a traitor, her Russian Federation team lost handily to the Americans.
In a way, Hammon was spreading the wealth, but not really. American dominance was, and is, alive and well.
In Atlanta, Beijing, Pyeongchang, and the Women’s Soccer World Cup, American women were dominant. Many argued they were more dominant than their male counterparts in respective competitions.
But upon beginning this fascinating journey into analyzing women in sport a couple of years ago, a peer of mine put an idea in my head. He spouted to me that the reason American women win is because of a lack of competition around the world.
While I was discouraged and thought his intent was to devalue female athletes, I’ve realized that he was correct. Adrienne N. Milner and Jomills Henry argued the American advantage in their 2017 book “Women in Sports: Breaking Barriers, Facing Obstacles.”
“The United States is one of the few nations to promote women’s athletics through collegiate scholarships. The growth in the number of women’s Olympic events puts the United States at an advantage over other countries who have yet to encourage women culturally, and financially, to compete at the highest levels of sport,” they wrote.
After Rio in 2016, Rebecca Lai and Jasmine Lee of the New York Times asserted that the success of women in the Olympics is linked to the opportunities granted in their home countries. Nations such as the U.S., China, Canada, and New Zealand all had more medals won by women than men.
A conclusion was drawn, however, that the International Olympic Committee had much more to do. A final graph in the Lai and Lee piece explained that there were still fewer medals that women could win the 2016 games.
We discussed last week that the committee actually has taken considerable steps to “foster gender equality.” In addition to introducing mixed-gendered events within the 2020 Agenda, the committee released a report from the Gender Equality Review Project last month.
There is a clear understanding that the Olympics will be focusing on gender parity among its athletes, its media coverage, the body’s philanthropic pursuits, and the committee’s leadership. Also, it will be implementing public relations strategies to inform the international community of its progress.
While I approve of all of the above, one initiative is clearly missing. Where is the plan to increase parity across all women’s events? How will the committee encourage countries besides the United States to invest in women’s athletics?
We’ve returned to our initial discussion: How did Team USA become so dominant?
An obvious albatross in the way of this progress is the power of cultural norms and legislation in authoritarian and repressive regimes. While Saudi Arabia sent four women to Rio, the government currently denies women and girls not only participation in tournaments and state-organized leagues but also attendance at male sporting events.
Sending female delegates allowed for Saudi Arabia to escape criticism, using the Olympics as a tool. The Olympic Committee must be willing to hold it accountable and punish its oppressive behavior.
Could the Olympic Committee entertain sanctions against nations such as Saudi Arabia that clearly do not uphold all of the principles of the committee and its games?
Now here’s the good news. Apparently, the United States has been linking itself to these types of initiatives. Since 2012, a partnership between the U.S. State Department, ESPNW, and the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace, and Society spurred the Global Sports Mentoring Program. The program sends ambassadors to work with global communities such as in Egypt, India, Kenya, and beyond, encouraging the participation of women and girls in sport.
And beyond the obvious parity, this type of work is valuable. Back in 2005, a UN report entitled Women, Gender Equality and Sport found that allowing women to engage in sports in any capacity has extreme physical and mental health benefits. (Duh!)
Astrid Aafjes, the director of Women Win, a non-profit dedicated to empowering girls around the world through sports, addressed the privilege Title IX has guaranteed the United States. She explained that the institution of Title IX encouraged powerful donors behind sports programs to step up.
“Title IX provides evidence of the positive effect of rights-based programming upon a population whose rights had been denied,” she wrote. “Funding drives equity.”
And so I say once again, thank God for Title IX.
“Everybody Talks” is a radio show on WRUR’s the Sting that highlights women’s involvement in sports and the social issues that surround athletics. You can listen to it every Friday from 1–2 p.m. on thesting.wrur.org.