Title IX and the Rio Olympics

Tom Witosky covered sports, politics and business for many years as an investigative reporter at the Des Moines Register. -promoted by desmoinesdem


Back when newspaper reporters typed their stories onto paper, the notation -30- at the bottom of the final page indicated the end of a story.

When the U.S. Men’s Olympic basketball team on Sunday defeated Serbia, 96-66, the 30-point drubbing fittingly symbolized the end of one of the best Olympic efforts ever by U.S. male and female athletes. Medal totals told the story: U.S. teams earned 121 medals (45 gold, 37 silver and 38 bronze) outpacing China’s second place finish with 70 medals.

But what’s more interesting is how the dominance of U.S. female athletes, likely the most superior women’s team ever fielded by the United States Olympic Committee, played such a huge role in that success.

In many ways, the U.S. success provides another metaphor for the progress that has been made in this country’s striving for a better union. Like the breaking of the racial barrier in Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson, and the breaking of the sexual-orientation barrier by a variety of athletes, the success of the U.S. women illustrates vividly that commitment to equality and diversity does pay despite long-term, deep-seated resistance from those who disagree.

Some facts about the success of the U.S. women athletes to put their remarkable performances into context:

• Women comprised the majority of the U.S. Olympic team members: 292, compared to 232 men. In 1972 – the same year that Title IX was adopted to provide women with comparable opportunity in athletics sponsored by any education institution receiving federal fund – the U.S. Olympic team had only 90 women out of 428 athletes.
• U.S. women athletes won 61 of the medals, outpacing the male athletes who collected 55. Five medals went to winners in events like mixed-doubles tennis and equestrian.
• Of the gold medal winners, U.S. women won 27 of the 46 American golds. To put that number into better perspective, if the U.S. women had competed alone in Rio, the U.S. would have tied with second-place Great Britain for the highest number of gold medals awarded.
• The U.S. team also reflected the population of the nation when it comes to race, religion and sexual orientation. Some conservative religious leaders decried the inclusion of lesbians on the U.S. Women’s basketball team and others expressed satisfaction when U.S. fencer Ibtihaj Muhammed, the first U.S. female Olympic athlete to wear a hijab, lost a match. They also were strangely silent when she played a key role in the U.S. women’s saber team winning a bronze medal.

Such dominance by U.S. women’s athletes is surprising only in the sense that the steady rise of female athletes in gymnastics, swimming, and water polo is largely ignored until the quadrennial Summer Olympics are held. The development of women’s basketball, soccer, track and field are noted a bit more, but mostly get lost in the shuffle of the male professional sports leagues operating in the U.S.

But make no mistake: the female athletic prowess displayed this year is largely the result of the change in U.S. culture that began in 1972 with the adoption of Title IX despite strong opposition.

The law’s mandate is simple:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Since its initial passage, conservative critics have targeted the implementation of Title IX as reverse discrimination against male athletes, unnecessary because women aren’t interested in athletics, and finally as the root cause when colleges drop men’s sports not women’s sports when budgets are tight.

In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the impact of Title IX by declaring that only those educational programs receiving federal money directly from the federal government would have to comply with the statute. The ruling came after several attempts to gut the law, including one by the NCAA that had fought the legislation almost from the beginning.

But two years later, a Democratic-controlled Congress with the help of Republicans resurrected the law with the passage of the Civil Rights Restoration Act over President Ronald Reagan’s veto. Under the change, public and private educational institutions receiving any federal money were required to comply with the law.

Since then, women seeking comparable athletic opportunity have met opposition at just about every turn from conservatives like former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a former wrestling coach who now sits in prison after a federal judge branded him a serial child molester. Each complaint targeted female athletes for wanting simply the same thing as any male athlete – a chance to compete.

I chose to highlight Hastert’s opposition because he spoke at a news conference I covered years ago during which he attacked Title IX as threatening the sport of wrestling. He decried the fact some schools were willing to provide money for girl’s athletics and that several legal groups were filing lawsuits across the country to have the law enforced.

“They’ve built a nice little cottage industry,” Hastert spewed. “We want to run them out of business.”

Other opponents brought similar arguments my way. My response is simple: “Imagine a classroom in which the math teacher tells the students that there is a limited number of books. As a result, only the boys will get the books and the girls will have to try to figure it out on their own.”

Luckily, Iowans – though subjected to some of that foolishness – had leaders who fought for a woman’s right not only to compete, but be provided with comparable coaching, facilities, and uniforms. The late E. Wayne Cooley, as executive secretary to Iowa High School Girls Union, became a thoughtful adviser to various women organizations during the fight for Title IX. At the same time, he worked diligently to make sure Iowa teenage girls would have plenty of opportunity to compete in various sports and be celebrated for it.

Over the years, the law has had the impact anticipated by its supporters. Women’s participating in athletics has skyrocketed both in high schools and colleges. In 1972, only 300,000 females participated in athletics nationwide; in 2010-11, more than 3.2 million females participated. That kind of increase combined with substantially more spending on girls sports mandated by the federal law inevitably gave birth to the accomplishments in Rio.

Ironically, Title IX once again finds itself the target of opposition, but this time it’s over whether the law prohibits discrimination against transgendered students.

At issue is whether the Obama Administration exceeded its authority in interpreting the law to require schools to permit transgendered students to use bathroom and locker room facilities based on their gender identity, not their biological status.

The interpretation – much like the enforcement of the law regarding female athletic opportunity since 1988 – has spawned an outcry from conservatives that border again on predictions of the end of western civilization as we know it.

A federal judge in Texas, in a 36-page opinion issued Sunday, blocked the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX contending that the federal law can never be used to protect transgendered because gender identity isn’t included specifically within the statute’s definition of those to be protected from discrimination.

“It cannot be disputed that the plain meaning of the term sex as used when it was enacted by the Department of Education following passage of Title IX meant the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth,” the judge wrote.

Critics of the decision contend the judge’s ruling ignores a series of U.S. Supreme Court precedents that provide the agencies the authority to make its interpretation of the law. In addition, the critics said that the judge’s insistence that his injunction applied nationwide was wrong.

Iowa education officials already have issued guidance to school districts that the federal judge’s decision has no impact on the Iowa Civil Right Act that includes a ban on discrimination against transgendered individuals.

How this issue will be decided as it grinds through the political and legal maze is anyone’s guess. But it might be good to remind the opponents what has happened since so many of them decried the notion that women be treated equally in athletics.
If for no other reason than to make sure they can’t ignore what happened in Rio.

Tom Witosky is a former investigative reporter for the Des Moines Register writing specifically about sports, politics, and business. He is also the co-author of Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led America to Marriage Equality – the story of the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage. He can be found on Facebook or on Twitter @tomwitosky.

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  • Gable

    While the advancement of women’s sports is welcome I’d question the use of Hastert as an example of the opposition Dan Gable, a revered figure in our state spoke at length about the damage he saw to his sport due to Title 9. Iowa State lost it’s baseball team and Title 9 was given as a reason. The use of a pervert like Hastert seems an attempt to discredit any discussion on Title 9.

    Always a little wary when I see this tactic used.

    • ISU's budget decision

      I covered the decision by Iowa State to drop baseball and that decision was a budget decision on what to do with a growing deficit in the athletic department. Much like Wisconsin, the athletic administration decided to drop baseball to be able to continue to enhance its increased spending on football and men’s basketball. Yes, the argument is that female sports should have taken the hit, but TItle IX prevented it. That is true. But it is also true that athletic department officials at Iowa State like every other school have continually increased spending on football and men’s basketball. The essential question is this: Is a college athletic department a part of an educational institution or is it a business? If it is a business, then it’s time to drop all sports that run deficits, thus eliminating all sports except football and men’s basketball, and eliminate the federal and state tax deduction on private contributions to athletic departments including suite rentals. If it part of an educational institution, then it is subject to Title IX. As for Hastert, I chose to use him because he had the ability to thwart its impact in a very specific way. Dan Gable’s advocacy for wrestling was certainly understandable and to be respected. But this had to do with opposition to the implementation of a law and member of Congress is clearly to be held to a higher standard.