Friday, June 24, 2022

Happy Birthday, Title IX!

 Title IX turned 50 this week. I had a more elaborate plan for a post/piece that I still may enact when I find the time. This post, however, is a version of a talk I gave to Title IX coordinators with the State University of New York (SUNY) system a couple of weeks ago. I chose to highlight a recent story out of New York in which Title IX was NOT invoked but could have been. I also--because it was requested--talked about strategies for addressing the needs of trans/gender queer students on our college campuses. I am going to save that part for a later time and incorporate some of the new, horrifying changes/movements we have seen. 

I want to thank Dr. Jaime Schultz of Penn State for sending me some of the sources I cited in my presentation, which I heard about in her talk in April about the 50th anniversary of Title IX. 

In May, members of the boys and girls track team at Albany High School were practicing without their shirts on over the course of several high temperature days. According to the students involved, this was a norm. But it was also apparently in violation of the school dress code. On a Wednesday the athletics director saw athletes practicing without shirts and told members of the girls track team that they would not be allowed to do so going forward. The students report that she said it was because they have male coaches around and it is a distraction. The next day, both the girls and boys again practiced without shirts. Some of the female athletes say this was a form of protest. The athletics director asked the boys to put their shirts back on—they did. But she removed some of the girls from practice; they left the track without incident; they tried to take a picture of themselves in their sports bras on the track but were barred from doing so. They took the picture inside and immediately started a petition which included the photo.

Some of the same girls attempted to attend a lacrosse game later that day where they were stopped by the AD and three security guards who prevented them from attending. An argument ensued and the girls were suspended from practice and competition for disrespectful conduct to an administrator. The team competed on Friday with only two members and the suspension cost many of the girls an opportunity to qualify for post-season competition. On Saturday a letter was sent to the homes of all the girls—from the AD—who wrote that each girl:  "poses a continuing danger to persons or property or an ongoing threat of disruption to the academic and athletic process." On Monday all the girls were called into a meeting from which parents were banned. There are different versions of the story with some administrators saying the girls were suspended for their conduct at the lacrosse game and others saying they were suspended for wearing sport bras.

What do we learn from this story and how does it reflect on where we are at 50 years into Title IX’s existence?

1.      Even though Title IX can be applied here, it was not. I have a Title IX Google alert and I did not see this story come through my email. This speaks to the cultural knowledge about Title IX. 

A 2022 study by The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland found that 71% children aged 12-17 did not know what Title IX is along with 58% of their parents. A 2017 survey led by Dr. Ellen Staurowsky found that half of college athletes surveyed knew nothing about the law and the other half had "large gaps in foundational understandings of what Title IX requires and how it works.” 

This is a trend. I heard as early as the late aughts that college aged women athletes did not know that there was a law that guaranteed them equity in the context of school-sponsored sports. Young people—college-aged people—do not know Title IX applies to athletics but also to things like dress codes. Why? There is so much attention on prevention of and justice for sexual assault and harassment, which is necessary, and sometimes probably feels all-consuming because of the seemingly never-ending changes in enforcement, regulations, best practices, etc. 

BBut we have to remember that everything is connected. The discourse of “what you wear is distracting or titillating so you can’t wear it” is part of rape culture that in a college setting manifests into the rape myth that what she was wearing is a factor in why she was assaulted. A woman who sees she is not being treated the same as her male athlete peers gets the message that the school cares less about her experiences—maybe as a softball players but also maybe as a victim of domestic violence—maybe at the hands of a male student athlete. 

There is something happening when athletics/sports attempts to address issues of sexual and domestic violence. At my institution, SUNY Cortland, we hold an annual event called Yards for Yeardley to raise money for the foundation started in the name of University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love who was murdered by her also lacrosse playing boyfriend after a known history of domestic abuse. Many of my students who are athletes—club and varsity—are “encouraged” to participate in this event as a form of community service/giving back. They do not know what it is. They do not know Yeardley Love and the circumstances of her death or the foundation created in her name.   

We need to consider how we might widen our educational efforts to cover some of the gaps and to demonstrate the interconnectedness of seemingly different inequities.

2.      The second thing to take from the Albany story, and an issue that has been getting a good amount of attention on this 50th birthday celebration: race matters. There was no mention in any of the articles I read about the racial identity of the members (that’s a media issue I won’t even attempt to address here) but some stories included the photo from the petition. There are many non-white athletes in this photo. 

      We know that Title IX has disproportionately benefited white women in terms of athletic opportunities. It is an anti-discrimination law based on sex alone and does not address how discrimination is intersectional and affected by race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class, etc.    

While not specifically a Title IX issue, the suspension as punishment should not be overlooked. Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated  that suspensions of non-white students are both more frequent and have more negative impacts.  

      In our respective positions as educators, coaches, community leaders, parents, we may not be able to fix these discrepancies and disparities that occur before students reach us (though we should definitely lobby people who can!) but we can and should be aware of what their effects are on the students with whom we interact. If non-white, non-middle and upper girls have fewer athletics opportunities how does that affect their overall health and well-being? What are they bringing into our offices and institutions? How do their past behavioral records, when present, affect their understandings of themselves, speak to lost/taken opportunities, trigger our own implicit biases?

3.      My final point regarding the Albany Girls track team, which I have just hinted at, is that these are the students coming into institutions of higher education. They may not know about Title IX specifically, but they know injustice; many are already activists or engaged in social justice endeavors; they know language and terms that I only learned in grad school. They have expectations that their institutions treat them fairly. We have to anticipate a more engaged student population that will expect us to know about how race and gender and sexuality and class intersect to create and impede opportunities and experiences. They give me hope and we have to do better by them.