Dawn Staley won three Olympic gold medals as a basketball player and another as a coach, and she has two national championships to her name at South Carolina. She has bona fides that would seem to earn her a comfortable perch at the top of her sport. But as a Black woman in college basketball, she’s not satisfied with the status quo. She knows that even with the promise of gender equality, Black women don’t get a fair shake.
“When we want all women to be successful, I do believe it falls under Title IX,” Staley said. “But I don’t think there’s enough support for Black women. I just don’t.”
The passage of Title IX in 1972 imparted unmistakeable and profound gains for female amateur athletes in the United States — strides that went far beyond the competitive confines of the field, court or track. But those gains have not been distributed equitably. Black female participation in college sports has long lagged behind that of white women. The word “race” isn’t featured among the famed 37 words of the law, and, perhaps tellingly, one of the chief figures tasked with ensuring Title IX compliance once quipped that issues of racial and gender discrimination needed to be solved one at a time.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the landmark bill, that differentiation appears to have left some disparities. According to a study by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport on athletes at Division I schools outside of historically Black colleges and universities, Black women made up only 12 percent of all female athletes in 2020-21 — about 2 percentage points lower than in 2008, the first year in which data is available.1
Part of the problem is that Title IX wasn’t designed to address race-based discrimination. Erin Buzuvis, a professor at the Western New England University School of Law who studies Title IX and college athletics, told me that when Congress passed the law, it was building off existing laws that targeted racial discrimination to make an analogous but separate framework for gender-based discrimination. And even gender-based discrimination in college athletics was hardly the primary focus of a piece of legislation that would fundamentally transform American life.
“If Congress had set out to say something like, ‘Let's create a law that's going to expand opportunities in scholastic and collegiate sport,’” Buzuvis said, “that law might have looked very different, and it might not have chosen the single axis of sex and might have been more broad-based.”
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that a law that didn’t mention race would not equitably benefit women of all races. A 2008 paper, for example, argues that the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which established that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, had a bigger impact on Black female student-athlete participation than did Title IX, and others have argued that Title IX’s singular focus on sex failed to notice the unique hurdles facing women of color.
Tina Sloan Green remembers a world before Title IX. Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950s and ’60s, she didn’t play organized sports and instead dabbled in games like kickball around her neighborhood. It wasn’t until she reached high school, when she was spotted by a physical education teacher, that she realized that sports could be a path for her life. That path would ultimately bring Sloan Green the distinction of being the first Black woman to play for the U.S. women’s national field hockey team, three national titles as the Temple University women’s lacrosse coach and an induction into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Today, Sloan Green is the president of the Black Women in Sport Foundation, an organization she co-founded that aims to increase the involvement of Black women in all aspects of sports. “My goal is to make sure that all children, especially Black women and brown women, have the same opportunities that I had,” she said.
Sloan Green said that when it comes to improving Black women’s access to sports, “What you do has to be intentional.” That sentiment was echoed by Staley, a fellow Philadelphia native and former coach at Temple.
“The best way to do it is be intentional,” Staley said. Staley, who has faced accusations that she recruits Black women to the exclusion of white women, acknowledged that saying Black female athletes face higher hurdles than white female athletes would draw criticism. But she was steadfast in her assertion. “We have to separate because Black girls and Black females don't always benefit,” she said.
But still, to fans of the most front-and-center college sports, the apparent stagnation — or even backslide — in Black female participation may come as a surprise. After all, some of the NCAA’s most noteworthy stars are Black women, and Black women are strongly represented in two prominent collegiate sports: basketball and track and field. In 2020-21, 41 percent of women’s basketball and 23 percent of women’s track and field athletes were Black.2
But outside of those sports, Black female athletes remain especially underrepresented. In 2020-21, Black women made up just 7.8 percent of the female athletes in sports outside of track and basketball, identical to the share in 2011-12,3 the earliest year we have data. Meanwhile, Black women’s relative representation in basketball and track (28 percent in 2020-21, vs. 30 percent in 2011-12) actually went down over the same period, though it remained much higher than in all other sports.
This imbalance by sport is nothing new. “Country-club sports” like tennis, golf and fencing have historically been inaccessible to both Black men and women as a consequence of racial clustering, when a group’s participation in sports is limited to just a few because of limited resources. “More robust athletic programs are going to be found in more school districts with resources,” Buzuvis said. “So when a community's resources are diminished … you're going to have fewer athletic programs that are going to be producing kids who are able to compete for those elite college scholarships. And that's going to have an effect on race, as well.” Another way in which this clustering may reinforce itself is tied to the growing trend of specialization of young athletes, which Buzuvis said has contributed to higher financial barriers to entry in youth sports.
It’s worth noting that women’s college athletics appear to be growing more diverse overall. Women of color comprised a record share of female athletes in Division I sports in 2020-21, and the increase in international athletes is also adding to the overall diversity. And the share of coaches in Staley’s sport who are Black women has nearly doubled over the past decade. But to Staley, that sort of improvement isn’t enough; such trends are often cyclical, she said.
And despite the criticism she says she has faced for her advocacy, Staley has no qualms about her strong stance toward boosting Black participation in her sport.
“You have the grumblings of people on social media who feel like, ‘Why do I have to create this separation? Why do I have to bring in race?’ It’s because my perspective is from a Black woman's eyes. And I want us to matter.”