2012: Year of the Women in Athletics, But is There Equality in Sports?

NPR, Time, and CNN all hailed 2012 as the year of the women athlete. It was seen in the Olympics where all countries were represented with both male and female athletes for the first time. Also the United States had more female athletes than male ones for the first time. Furthermore these American females brought home more hardware than did their male counterparts. Women's boxing made its Olympic debut, while, whether you knew it or not, women's wrestling finished its third Olympiad as an official sport (luckily, I was in the camp that did not know, as wrestling – male or female – has always been less than pleasing on the eyes). Many have declared that women have arrived in athletics and cheer the success of title IX and a culture that pushes women to not only look unnaturally beautiful, but to play sports while doing it.

My praise would likely not go so far, but it raises a good point, perhaps women have arrived, perhaps, it is time for true gender equality in sports.

"Wait!" you may be shouting (if you are, I certainly hope you are not in a public place, for that, at the least, could be an awkward experience for those around you), "Did not Title IX do just that, enforce equal opportunity in athletics for women?" That was indeed the purpose of the so-called title, and some argue that the most recent Olympiad is evidence of its success. However if we believe in that golden mantra of Brown vs. Board of Education (as I am most certain the proponents of Title IX do) that "separate is inherently unequal" then women's sports are not equal to men's. Furthermore, we all know it is true. Women's basketball≠men’s basketball. Just look at the NBA vs. WNBA, or the exposure of the men's NCAA tournament vs. the women's tournament. Enough said, if we really want to achieve equality we should stop pushing for numerical equality or similar measures and focus on true equality.

But first, let us look at the emergence of women's sports and what caused it. It all starts back in the Stone Age, However we will skip all that and go straight to 1972, a year very few of you remember as those who are apt in mathematics have already figured, it would require you having climbed the hill we call 40. If you do remember it, you also likely recognize this song that was released and topped the charts that year. It is also the year Title IX passed, which aimed at enforcing fairness and equality in federally funded institutions. Here is a portion: "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..."

Like so many things coming out of the law-making machine we call the federal government, Title IX sounds elegant and noble. But loaded in those elegant ambiguities are, as always, hundreds of unintended consequences.

Though athletic programs themselves rarely receive (or received) federal dollars, the institutions they are part of often have, and as such are subject to regulations. The ambiguity of the original was, as usually happens, codified into more specific regulations including the so called three-prong test the first of these "prongs" is satisfied when "participation opportunities for male and female students are provided in numbers substantially proportionate to their respective enrollments."

As most enrollments have close to a 50:50 (the U.S. average is 44:56) male-female ratio, this would mean 50:50 male-female athletes, scholarships, etc. One problem would of course be that human interest does not always trend proportional populations. What if 70% of females and 30% of males (or vice versa) want to play sports? This is only one of many possible problems or questions people could have. And so, as usual, when the federal stick tries to club thousands of institutions or groups into compliance, the nuances of particular situations are missed.

During the Olympics you likely heard about the U.S. Women's outstanding success, but did you hear about the good, but lackluster success (compared to previous Olympiads) of the U.S. in men's wrestling, a sport the U.S. once dominated? Of course this should be to no surprise to those who have seen scores of colleges drop their wrestling programs to comply with title IX (my own university dropped its fairly successful program quite a few years back). For those of you whose good night out does not include watching sweaty men in spandex awkwardly tangled on a mat (I personally think wrestling should be rated NC-never) many other men's sports suffered as well, including tennis, gymnastics, track, and swimming.

From 1972 on while it has become easier and easier for women to participate in college sports, for men it has become increasingly difficult as scholarships, positions, and entire programs have disappeared.

Many have argued against Title IX for its evils done to men's athletics (Washington TimesUS News). The reader has also probably recognized my own personal distaste for the thing. However, let us, for the sake of argument, say Title IX was necessary. Perhaps we had to hurt men's athletics a little to give women a fair shake in the male-dominated athletic world.

But now that has passed. Women have arrived as so many news organizations have noted. We now live in a world where women do not need be ashamed to roll up their sleeves and run, use a tennis racket, bounce a basketball, or even punch another girl in the face.

Time to move on, time for full equality. We no longer need separate men's and women's sports, why not just have sports? No more men's basketball, or women's basketball, just basketball. Everyone would be truly equal, as they would be (literally) competing on the same field (or court, or even mat). A basketball team could start all girls, all guys, or three guys and two girls, the coach could pick just as he does now, based completely on talent and need. 

That is true gender equality. So how about it equality advocates? I say it is time, just don't force me to watch the wrestling matches.