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Title IX at 50: Girls are still fighting for equality in high school sports

(Bryon Houlgrave/USA TODAY Network)
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By Jacob Richman and Alexandra Gopin

Title IX was designed in part to balance the scales for girls and boys in school-based athletics. Some day, maybe it will.

But nearly 50 years after Congress passed the sweeping law that guarantees equity in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” including high school athletics, girls are stuck in an imperfect system that continues to favor boys in many ways.

Girls’ participation in school sports has increased dramatically since 1972. But Title IX advocates say that boys still get better treatment. Often, they say, boys teams are provided nicer uniforms, play on better fields, are led by more experienced coaches, have their practices scheduled at more desirable times (relegating girls teams to early mornings and late nights), play with newer equipment and dress in better-equipped locker rooms. All are potential violations of Title IX.

“We still estimate that the majority of schools are likely out of compliance with the law,” said Sarah Axelson, vice president of advocacy at the Women’s Sports Foundation.

When girls see that they’re getting worse treatment, their options include challenging their coach or principal, filing a lawsuit and lodging a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education — all daunting for a teenager. When parents step forward to report these situations, they’re often at the center of disputes that can roil their child’s high school. Not surprisingly, only a small percentage of likely violations end up being reported.

A four-month investigation by The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland raises serious questions about the effectiveness of Title IX in the 23,882 public high schools across the U.S. It raises concerns about how many of the 3.4 million girls playing high school sports have experienced violations of Title IX that went unaddressed.

Among the findings:

  • Title IX isn’t aggressively policed by state or federal government officials. It’s mostly up to teenagers and their parents to report violations.
  • Most parents and students aren’t well informed about the law. The federal government doesn’t require schools to offer education about Title IX and athletics.
  • Reporting Title IX violations often means standing up to school officials like coaches and principals. That’s a lot to ask of high school students and their parents.
  • Title IX enforcement protocols are cumbersome and slow-moving. A review of 39 complaints to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights by the Povich and Howard centers showed that the average time from filing to resolution was nearly two years. That means girls who suffered unequal treatment often graduated before they saw results.

Violations reach girls across the country:

  • In Union City, New Jersey, a highly publicized athletics field that sits on the roof of a $180 million high school building was mostly used by boys teams. For nearly 10 years, access for girls was limited.
  • In Ewa Beach, Hawaii, girls on the water polo team argued that they had to practice on dry land or in the open ocean before their season because they couldn’t get funding for a pool.
  • In Ventura, California, girls on the softball team suffered injuries on a field that was poorly maintained, while the boys baseball team had a field that was better tended at a higher quality stadium.

“Most of these athletes just presume that there must be a reason that they’re getting second-class treatment,” three-time Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar said. “It’s everywhere they look. They see that men are getting more than women everywhere. In high school, in junior high school, in college, men are getting more.”

There’s no doubt that Title IX has had a positive impact on girls and opportunities for them to play sports. Consider Title IX’s impact on participation in high school sports. During the 1971-72 school year, girls made up about 7% of high school athletes in the country. For every girl playing on a high school team, there were more than 12 boys.

Most of these athletes just presume that there must be a reason that they’re getting second-class treatment. It’s everywhere they look.

Through the years, the participation gap steadily has narrowed. In a National Federation of State High School Associations survey of athletics participation in the 2018-19 school year, girls accounted for almost 43% of all high school players.

But the promise of Title IX has yet to be achieved.

Education is lacking

The greatest challenge may be education. Teenagers and their parents first have to understand the law before they challenge school authorities.

Interviews with dozens of parents and their children across the country by the Povich Center and Howard Center revealed a range of understanding of Title IX. Many high school athletes and their parents don’t know that the law exists. Others said they’d heard of the law but didn’t know that protections applied to them.

In the late 1970s, Ellen Zavian — the first female agent licensed by the National Football League Players Association and a Title IX advocate — wanted to play soccer in high school. But she was told she wouldn’t be able to because there was only a boys team.

So Zavian ran track, played volleyball and cheered.

“If I had known about Title IX, I definitely would have filed a suit against my school when I didn’t have the opportunity to play soccer,” Zavian said. “But, I didn’t know about it.”

That information gap still exists. Grace Saad, a former softball player at Buena High School in Ventura, California, didn’t realize she could do anything when her teammates threw around the term “Title IX” after noticing a clear disparity in how they were treated compared to their counterparts on the baseball team.

I knew that things weren’t equal, but I just thought that’s the way it was.

While the Buena High baseball team has a stadium, dugouts and a permanent outfield fence with a scoreboard, the softball team often didn’t have enough softballs to hold batting and fielding practice at the same time.

“I knew that things weren’t equal, but I just thought that’s the way it was,” said Saad, who graduated in 2020.

Courses and webinars in public schools could help inform students, coaches and administrators. But a federal education mandate like the one for parts of Title IX that refer to sexual assault doesn’t apply to sports.

Difficult choices for student, parents

At the beginning, someone notices a problem. It might fit into one of the two baskets of Title IX compliance — “participation” or “treatment and benefits.”

Participation applies to opportunities for girls to play sports as compared to the percentage of girls in a given high school, the proportionality test. If 60% of students in a high school are girls, approximately 60% of athletic opportunities should be for girls, according to Title IX.

Treatment and benefits refers to where girls play and what they play with, among other things. Title IX doesn’t mandate that boys and girls teams have exactly the same of everything. It does require that they receive equal treatment in locker rooms, practice and game venues, scheduling of games and practices, publicity and coaching experience.

At Pentucket Regional High School in West Newbury, Massachusetts, the issue was Twitter. When the school tweeted live updates from its athletics account, 60% focused on boys teams compared to only 32% for girls teams. The Office of Civil Rights determined that the school would be required to monitor publicity efforts to ensure that any inequalities are corrected.

A person with a concern about any of these issues can report them to their high school. A meeting with a principal or athletics director might quickly settle the issue.

When diplomacy fails, there are options in the courts and with the Office for Civil Rights.

Under Title IX, the the office investigates complaints about sexual violence, treatment of pregnant students and treatment of LGBTQ students, as well as school-based sex discrimination in sports. When a person files a complaint, investigators contact the school, check out allegations and decide if violations have occurred. If they have, the civil rights office issues a resolution letter with steps the school must take to come into compliance.

A Title IX lawsuit can be costly and time-consuming. Plaintiffs, even when they prevail, often emerge feeling bruised and exhausted.

In Stillwater, Oklahoma, a group of softball parents filed a Title IX lawsuit against the local school district in August 2020. Ten months later, the parties reached a settlement that addressed many of the parents’ concerns.

“It’s been quite an emotional toll. I think we’ve all lost sleep over it,” said Angela Morgan, a plaintiff in the case and president of the softball team booster club at Stillwater High School.

Eliminating sex discrimination

Title IX is rooted in the turbulent years of the 1950s and 1960s and the passions that fueled the civil rights movement. In those years, Congress debated laws designed to end racial discrimination in public accommodations, outlawing discrimination in hotels and at lunch counters. Later, its powers were expanded to end discrimination in hiring when companies received government contracts.

Title IX’s purpose was to eliminate sex discrimination in education. “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,” Title IX states.

At the time, few lawmakers thought about the effect it might have on sports. The subject of sports came up only once during the Senate’s months-long debate of the legislation — and that was no more than a passing exchange. Sen. Birch Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana and the bill’s sponsor, told one of his Senate colleagues: “I do not read [Title IX] as requiring integration … of the football fields,” as recounted by author Welch Suggs in “A Place on the Team: The Triumph and Tragedy of Title IX.”

Despite the profound impact the statute has had on girls and women in sports, those original 37 words included no references to athletics.

Nearly 50 years later, Title IX and opportunity for girls in sports are nearly synonymous. The gains made by high school girls over the decades have been significant, but boys often still get better treatment.

When the state-of-the-art, rooftop athletics field was unveiled in 2009 in Union City, New Jersey, it quickly gained national attention for its innovative design. The boys football team played on it for nearly a decade; use by girls teams was restricted.

The National Women’s Law Center pointed out the problem to Union City High School, and the administration made changes.

Today, girls teams share the field with boys, using it extensively for their practices and games. In fact, Union City High School is in many ways a model for gender equity in sports.

It’s a reminder that Title IX can be monitored and aggressively enforced. But for 50 years it hasn’t been.

The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism collaborated on a four-month investigation into Title IX and high school sports. Support their work at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

Women’s Sports Win Big at 2024 ESPY Awards

Host Serena Williams speaks on stage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
Tennis icon Serena Williams hosted the 32nd annual ESPY Awards on Thursday night. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for W+P)

Thursday's 2024 ESPYs doubled as a celebration of the rising popularity of women's sports, as retired tennis superstar Serena Williams hosted the proceedings with ease.

"Get up, get off the TikTok, work hard, find out how capable you are. Be great. Be so great they don't want to believe in you and then be even greater," she told the next generation at the end of her opening monologue.

South Carolina Gamecocks accept the Best Team Award onstage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
The 2023-24 South Carolina Gamecocks took home the ESPY for Best Team. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Women's sports take center stage at ESPYs

Athletes in women's sports were big winners throughout last night's ceremony, reflecting a watershed year across the entire sporting landscape.

Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark took home both the Best College Athlete and Best Record Breaking Performance Awards for her historic NCAA career at Iowa.

USC star JuJu Watkins won Best Breakthrough Athlete after an exceptional freshman season with the Trojans.

Gymnast Simone Biles won Best Comeback Athlete, as the two-time Olympian prepares for her third Summer Games later this month.

Las Vegas Aces' all-time leading scorer A'ja Wilson came up big in both the Best Women's Sports Athlete and Best WNBA Player categories.

The undefeated 2023-24 South Carolina Gamecocks won the award for Best Team.

Dawn Staley accepts the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance onstage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
The Jimmy V Award recognizes "a deserving member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination." (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Dawn Staley honored with individual award

SC coach Staley picked up her own honor, receiving the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance for her continued contributions in the field of cancer research advocacy.

Named after NC State men's basketball coach Jim Valvando, the Jimmy V Award recognizes "a deserving member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination."

"I must confess, I feel a little undeserving of this recognition," Staley said in her acceptance speech. "Past recipients of the Jimmy V Perseverance Award have faced incredible challenges and proven themselves as true warriors. I have merely been a spectator to such immense courage and resilience."

After opening up about her family's personal connection to the cause, Staley spoke about her greater journey as an advocate, both on and off the court.

"I try my best to do things in the right way, knowing that some little girl is out there watching me... maybe, she's one of the 13 pairs of eyes that see every little thing I do everyday and make sure to comment on it, that's my team," she said, motioning to her undefeated Gamecocks squad seated in the audience.

"How do I not fight pay disparity, when I do the same job and get paid less but win more?" she continued. "I can't ask them to stand up for themselves if I'm sitting down. Nor can I ask them to use their voice for change if I'm only willing to whisper."

Macario Withdraws from Olympics Ahead of USWNT Send-Off Games

uswnt forward catarina macario on the field against uzbekistan
Forward Catarina Macario has made 19 career appearances for the USWNT. (Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

USWNT manager Emma Hayes dropped a big piece of roster news on Friday, with Chelsea star forward Catarina Macario officially ruled out for the 2024 Paris Olympics due to "consistent irritation in her right knee."

The roster shakeup comes the day before the USWNT begins a series of two send-off friendlies leading up to the Olympics. In the wake of the injury, forward Lynn Williams will now be elevated from an alternate to a fully rostered player, with defender Emily Sams moving from training player to Olympic alternate.

Macario's original injury dates to 2022

In June 2022, Macario suffered an ACL tear in her left knee while playing for former club team Olympique Lyonnais.

Before the injury, the Stanford University standout featured on the USWNT's expanded Tokyo Olympics roster in 2021. She went on to win the 2022 Champions League title with Lyon before being sidelined the following month.

The 24-year-old continued to rehab the injury, sitting out the 2023 World Cup. She returned to the USWNT for the first time since 2022 this past April. After helping lead the US to victory at the 2024 SheBelieves Cup, Macario took the pitch again for the USWNT's June friendlies.

Looking to the future, Hayes called Macario's knee "not a long-term situation, just not going to recover in time for the Olympics" in Friday's announcement.

USWNT star Trinity Rodman plays against Mexico at the 2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup
The USWNT hasn't lost a game since falling to Mexico in February 2024. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images)

Pre-Olympic USWNT friendlies kick off

This Saturday, the newly formatted Olympic lineup with square off against Mexico in New Jersey.

It will be the first time the two teams have met since Mexico upset the US in the Concacaf W Gold Cup group stage earlier this year. Since then, the US hasn't lost a single match, going 5-0-2 and picking up trophies at the Gold Cup as well as SheBelieves Cup.

The USWNT's 18-player Olympic roster will take center stage this week, while alternates and training players joined the team at camp leading up to the friendlies. Training players Alyssa Thompson and Kate Wiesner will return to their NWSL squads prior to Saturday's USWNT friendly.

Many of the players on the US Olympic roster have just recently left their NWSL teams for the Olympic break, while three European club players — Lindsey Horan (Lyon), Korbin Albert (PSG), and Emily Fox (Arsenal) — have spent the last six weeks off the pitch.

USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher enters the field
USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has 104 international caps, including 62 clean sheets. (Hannah Peters/FIFA via Getty Images)

A new USWNT paves its Olympic path

The pre-Olympic series will likely see goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher return to the starting XI, after a hamstring injury kept her out of a pair of June friendlies.

The matches will also provide an initial glimpse of a USWNT without longtime star Alex Morgan, who was not selected to play in this year's Summer Games. Morgan's absence will impact the frontline, with Sophia Smith most likely to take over at center forward.

Speaking from USWNT training camp, Naeher expressed positivity about this year's Olympic team.

"I just feel an energy shift — I've just feel like a joy and excitement of from the group," she said. "I think that's really exciting to come back into after being gone from it for a camp."

The US will play a second friendly in Washington, DC on Tuesday against fellow Concacaf competitor Costa Rica. For a team looking to redeem their international standing after a disappointing World Cup run, these next two outings will serve as a chance to develop the chemistry necessary to hit the ground running in Paris later this month.

Seattle Reign Stars Barnes, Fishlock Back New USL W League Team

usl w league ballard vice president tiffany mallick holding an official usl w ball
Joining May 2025, Seattle’s USL W team will be the sixth in the league’s Northwest division. (Ballard FC/YouTube)

On Tuesday, 25 Seattle-based sports and business professionals announced their investment in a new USL W League team operated by popular semi-pro USL League Two men’s side Ballard FC.

Headlined by Lauren Barnes (Seattle Reign), Jess Fishlock (Seattle Reign), Olivia Van der Jagt (Seattle Reign), and Sam Hiatt (Gotham FC), alongside Seattle Storm co-owner Ginny Glider and Jen Barnes, owner of the women's sports-focused Rough & Tumble Pub, the yet-to-be-named Ballard squad will enter the pre-professional league next May.

Current Ballard FC president Sam Zisette will oversee both the men’s and women’s clubs, while vice president and seasoned athletic trainer Tiffany Mallick will shift her focus on the women's team.

"Our goal is to create better opportunities for young women to develop their skills on and off the field," said Reign captain Lauren Barnes in a team press release. "The path to professional soccer didn’t exist on the same scale while I was growing up, and I’m thrilled to be part of changing that for future players."

"Introducing a USL W League team to Ballard is a monumental step in advancing our organization and soccer community," added Zisette. "Ballard is a special place with an immense sense of pride, passionate spirit, and love for soccer. We can’t wait to see the community embrace this new team!"

Tampa Bay United Soccer Club
Launched in 2022, the USL W League now fields 80 teams across four conferences. (USL W League)

What is the USL?

The United Soccer League (USL), which organizes multiple US leagues across all divisions, has recently upped its commitment to the women's game.

In addition to the developmental USL W League — which started in 2022 and now fields 80 teams across four conferences plus three 2025 expansion teams, including Ballard — USL is set to launch the fully professional USL Super League next month.

With eight inaugural clubs (and plans to expand to 20 teams by 2026), the USL Super League will join the NWSL as the only other Division 1 women’s league in the country. But unlike the NWSL, the USL Super League will mirror the European schedule, operating from fall through spring with its official kickoff slated for August 17th.

As with USL W Ballard, the Super League also has some star power behind it. In May, WNBA All-Star rookie Angel Reese joined the ownership group of Washington's forthcoming DC Power FC.

USL W League finalists South Georgia Tormenta FC v Minnesota Aurora FC
The 2024 USL W League's semifinals kick off on Saturday, July 13th. (Jeremy Olson/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

USL W League gears up for postseason action

But before the USL Super League takes the pitch, their pre-professional counterparts will finish up their 2024 postseason run.

On Saturday, the USL W's four conference champions will square off in the league semifinals on Saturday, July 13th, with NC Courage U23 hosting Tennessee SC and the Colorado Storm facing Detroit City FC in Michigan. Winners from those two matches will then battle it out at the USL W League final on July 20th.

All USL W postseason action can be streamed live on SportsEngine Play.

Wilson, Clark Put Up Record-Breaking Numbers in Midweek WNBA Action

WNBA Las Vegas Aces A'ja Wilson blocks Nneka Ogwumike of the Seattle Storm
Las Vegas's A'ja Wilson added to her lengthy stat sheet on Wednesday. (Scott Eklund/NBAE via Getty Images)

Around the WNBA, big-name players A'ja Wilson, Kahleah Copper, Caitlin Clark, and Angel Reese made good use of Wednesday's jam-packed five-game schedule, kicking off a pre-All-Star Weekend campaign that promises not to disappoint.

Aces' A'ja Wilson racks up a perfect 20/20

Two-time MVP A’ja Wilson was the star of the show yesterday, throwing down epic numbers in one of her most successful performances so far this season

Wilson registered a 24-point, 20-rebound double-double in the Aces’ 84-79 win over Seattle, marking the six-time All-Star's first-ever 20/20 game.

Storm guard Jewell Loyd’s 28 points led the game, but between Wilson’s numbers and fellow Ace Jackie Young’s 27 points, Vegas managed to leapfrog fifth-place Seattle to secure a fourth-place spot in the WNBA standings.

WNBA star Kahleah Copper of the Phoenix Mercury drives to the basket against the Dallas Wings
With 32 points, Mercury standout Kahleah Copper led the WNBA in scoring Wednesday. (Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images)

Top-ranked WNBA teams keep scoring

At the top of the table, the Liberty beat the Sun 71-68 to oust Connecticut from the pair's previous tie for first in the standings. 

2024 WNBA All-Star DeWanna Bonner’s 22 points led the Sun, while Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu sank 21 points alongside Breanna Stewart’s 18-point, 14-rebound double-double to extend New York's record to 18-4 on the season.

And in Phoenix, the Mercury dominated the last-place Wings 100-84 behind Kahleah Copper’s 32 points — the most drained by any player that day. Yet despite double-doubles from both Teaira McCowan and Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas fell to 5-18 on the season with the loss.

WNBA Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark shoots in a game against the Washington Mystics
WNBA rookie phenom Caitlin Clark dropped 29 points for Indiana on Wednesday. (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rookies Clark, Reese, and Cardoso put up numbers

Fever star Caitlin Clark owned Indiana's stat sheet yesterday with 29 points and 13 assists, becoming the first player in WNBA or NBA history to drop 25+ points, five rebounds, 10+ assists, five steals, and three blocks in a single game.

Clark's effort wasn't enough to hold off the otherwise struggling Mystics, however, who stunned the Fever 89-84 behind a monster 26 points from Ariel Atkins

Chicago's rookies joined forces to lift the Sky over the Dream 78-69, as Kamilla Cardoso added her own double-double to teammate Angel Reese’s record-extending 14th

This season, Reese and Cardoso have combined to average just under 20 rebounds per game so far this season. If that metric holds, they’ll make WNBA history with the highest average for any duo in a single season.

A 2024 WNBA All-Star banner hangs outside the Footprint Center
Only 15 regular season games remain before WNBA All-Star Weekend in Phoenix. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

What happens next for WNBA teams

With All-Star Weekend tipping off one week from today, only 15 regular season games remain before the WNBA's scheduled Olympic break.

Whether they currently sit in first or last place, all 12 teams will want to hit the ground running when play resumes on August 15th.

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