Thursday, November 15, 2012

Study Uses Athletic Participation to Judge Women's "Predisposition" to Sport

A new study in the journal PLOS ONE cites lower rates of athletic participation among women as evidence that men have stronger predisposition to sports than women.   Richard Deaner, a psychologist from Grand Valley State, and his coauthors conclude that these results suggest "that it may be a mistake to base Title IX implementation on the assumption that males and females have, or soon will have, generally equal sports interest."

The study, titled A Sex Difference in the Predisposition for Physical Competition: Males Play Sports Much More Than Females Even in the Contemporary U.S., acknowledges that girls and women's participation in intercollegiate and interscholastic high school sports is relatively high -- 42 and 43% respectively.  Yet, the authors are concerned that these participation rates may "underestimate the actual sex difference in sports participation."  So, they report on three sources of data other than intercollegiate/interscholastic competition to demonstrate an athletic participation gap between male and female subjects.  First, the authors analyzed responses submitted to the American Time Use Survey, which finds female respondents of various ages engaging in 24% of total sports participation and 20% of team sports participation.  Second, the authors engaged in "systematic observations of sports and exercise at 41 public parks in four states" and observed females accounting for only 19% of individual sport participation and 10% of team sports participation.  Finally, they found that female college students accounted for only 26% of students registering for intramural sports. 

As I told the reporter from Inside Higher Ed who wrote an article about study, I don't find these findings surprising at all, given the historical and continuing discrimination and exclusion of women from sports, as well as cultural constraints on women's participation. What I do take issue with is the apparent suggestion that these reported participation rates are somehow more accurate of women's true predisposition to sports than their participation rates in intercollegiate and interscholastic contexts.  What worries me about this study is the implication that Title IX is somehow artificially inflating women's interest in athletics. To me, the fact that the gender gap is wider in sports contexts outside the scope of Title IX (in parks, for example, and other non-scholastic contexts measured by the ATUS) is actually an argument that Title IX is working, and, if anything, should be extended to those other contexts.  If there was a law as effective as Title IX has been in breaking down barriers and promoting women's opportunities that applied to these other recreational contexts as well, who's to say we would not see interest and participation rising there as well? 

Another thing that bothers me about this study is the odd extrapolation from women's low interest/participation in recreational contexts like parks and intramurals, to a suggestion of  women's similar low interest in interscholastic and intercollegiate athletic opportunities as well.  This is like saying, women don't like apples; therefore, they must not really like oranges, because both are fruit. In this case, the "oranges" are athletic opportunities that are well-coached, supported by the institution, allow athletes to compete in front of fans, to travel, and to possibly to earn a scholarship.  Saying that women are not interested in these opportunities because fewer women have the interest (or, I would say, the privilege) of playing pick-up basketball at the local park is a pretty attenuated connection to me. 

Finally, it seems to me that the authors have constructed a straw argument that Title IX implementation is in fact based on as assumption of equal interest.  It's not.  One of the compliance options in the three-part test (prong three) expressly allows schools to offer disproportionately low number of opportunities to female students, provided that there is no "unmet interest" in athletics among the female student body.  Lack of interest, properly measured, does factor into compliance obligations under Title IX.  That being the case, I worry that the point of this study is simply to supply inflammatory rhetoric rather than to address any real policy concern.   For this reason, I hope this study does not gain traction in the media but instead lays low as the non-story that it is.