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What 50 Years Of Title IX Has — And Hasn’t — Accomplished

The historical impact of Title IX extends far beyond the reaches of sports. The landmark legislation, which prohibited sex-based discrimination in federally funded schools and education programs, was passed 50 years ago this month. It coincided with enormous growth in educational attainment for American women1 and has been applied toward reducing sexual violence on campus and promoting transgender rights in recent years. But athletics have been at the center of Title IX from the very beginning. (Even the fight around it used sports as a battleground: Witness the early attempt by Sen. John Tower of Texas to exempt high-profile men’s sports from counting toward Title IX compliance.)2 Title IX challenged the long-standing notion that sports belonged to men — and men only. And its effects were felt both in the short term and over the half-century that has followed.

In 1971, the year before Title IX’s passage, fewer than 300,000 girls participated in sports at the high school level in the U.S., according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. That number represented just 8 percent of the boys participating in sports at that time, highlighting how few athletic opportunities existed for girls — a number reflected in college-level sports participation rates then as well. In the 1966-67 sports season, around 15,000 women participated in college sports at NCAA institutions (including recreational sports), or about 10 percent of the participation number for men. While college enrollment also skewed male in that era — men represented 59 percent of total postsecondary fall enrollment in 1970 — it was clear that women were severely underrepresented in the athletic ranks prior to Title IX’s passage.

That started to change quickly after Title IX went into effect. Participation in girls’ high school sports rose by 178 percent (from under 300,000 to more than 800,000) in the first year of Title IX, and by an annual average of 101 percent year-over-year for the first six years the law was in place. It should be noted, though, that boys’ participation also increased over the span, albeit by a smaller degree. By the end of Title IX’s first decade, total girls’ participation was 53.1 percent that of boys — a major improvement over the 8 percent figure in 1971, though not nearly at a level of true gender parity.

The gap has closed further in the decades since, with high school girls’ sports participation hitting an all-time peak of 75 percent relative to boys in 2018-19, the latest data available — and the most recent survey before the COVID-19 pandemic turned everything related to schools upside-down. (The ratio for the Division I level in college is even higher, at 88 percent as recently as 2016.) But at the same time, the total number of U.S. high school girls playing sports (3,402,733 in 2019) has never once eclipsed the boys’ raw number from 1971 (3,666,917), the year before Title IX was enacted. There are certain structural reasons for this; no other sport’s single-gender total comes close to matching the number of participants in boys’ football (1,006,013 in 2018-19), which explains 89 percent of the total gap in participation between boys and girls. But there are still many other opportunity gaps for women, even five decades into Title IX’s existence.

For instance, women’s participation in sports at the college level is lower than we would expect based on enrollment figures. And the allocation of resources in college athletics is far from equitable: In 2016, Division I women’s sports received only half as much financial support as men’s sports, including just 46 percent as much spending on recruiting and 43 percent as much spending on head-coaching compensation.

College sports aren’t yet fulfilling the spirit of Title IX

Female-to-male ratios for enrollment, athletic participation and resource allocation for NCAA Division I schools, 2016

Category Female-to-Male Ratio
Enrollment 1.13
Athletic participation 0.88
Athletic scholarships 0.88
Total athletic expenses 0.50
Recruiting expenditures 0.46
Head coach salaries 0.43
Assistant coach salaries 0.39

Source: NCAA

This kind of inequality has come to bear in numerous high-profile cases recently, particularly during the 2021 NCAA basketball tournaments — when disparities between the men’s and women’s events included vastly different workout facilities and meals of differing quality. While it should be clear that Title IX does not explicitly call for equal spending between men's and women's sports, it does forbid discriminatory treatment. Radically disparate amenities offered on the basis of an athlete’s sex would seem to fly in the face of that requirement, though the NCAA is not bound by the same Title IX governance as its member institutions.

So as far as women’s sports have come since June 1972, there is plenty of work left to do in achieving the ideals of equality behind Title IX. And this work matters. The gains made over the past 50 years have had a lasting and positive effect on the lives of women who had access to the benefits of participating in sports.

According to a recent poll by Pew Research Center, 82 percent of Americans who participated in high school or college sports said that the experience had a positive effect on their current physical health, with 79 percent saying it was a positive factor in their self-esteem and 44 percent saying it had a positive effect on their future job or career prospects. Those benefits, often overlooked when simply talking about the games on the field, have already helped the generations of female athletes who came up in the Title IX era. The same Pew poll reported that while only 33 percent of women ages 50 or older had played sports in high school or college, the share for women under age 50 was 48 percent.

As much as anything, these numbers help reflect the tangible impact Title IX has had in expanding athletic opportunities for girls and women over the past half-century. But at the same time, the progress that needs to be made over the next half-century has barely just begun.


  1. In 1970, before Title IX, women earned 43 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 39 percent of master’s degrees and 10 percent of doctorates; by 2019, those numbers had risen to 57 percent, 61 percent and 54 percent, respectively.

  2. Tower’s amendment, like several similar ones that came along later, failed.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.


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