The Other Title IX, Reimagining Women’s Sports

There’s no lack of discussion of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, but that’s about what activists have turned Title IX into, not what it was or was meant to be. Now that it’s reached its 50th birthday, there’s some discussion of how it worked out.

But in some ways, Title IX was a Pyrrhic victory. For all its successes, the groundbreaking legislation has failed to allow girls and women to excel on terms independent of boys and men. Like so much in our culture, sports are still based on a male model — a man’s body, a man’s interests. Current models of success in mainstream sport leave women competing on standards that exclude us, where in most cases we are not set up to thrive.

Fifty years after Title IX’s enactment, we have an opportunity to reimagine women’s sports altogether. If we accept that women’s bodies are not holistically inferior to men’s but rather fundamentally different, we have to value female athletes and women’s sports on their own terms.

If you’re initial reaction to this heresy about women’s bodies, which we’re reliably informed, are nothing but social constructs, raises a question, don’t waste your angst. There’s more than enough ideology in there to ignore the fashionable elevation of transgender hegemony over “biological” women to give one pause.

What would this look like? I propose a New Deal for women’s sports — with a women-first approach. This must go beyond creating entitlements and enforcing parity, as Title IX does. We must dismantle the grandfathered-in systemic advantages that male athletes and male-dominated sports infrastructures continue to enjoy. We must cultivate tastes for other sports, the ones that women excel in and even dominate. And we must broaden our definition of what athletic prowess looks like.

While the initial assertion of reimagining sports using a “women-first approach” sounds potentially interesting, the closing assertions give away the game. Cultivate tastes for other sports in which women excel or dominate? Is that how it works, that our interest in sports isn’t organic, but a by-product of what we’re fed by the tube?

So let’s start with a paradigm shift. The reason a slam dunk is better than a triple axel or a home run is more thrilling than a sprint at the end of a mile comes down to one thing: Our culture has told us so. Women’s sports have only a fraction of the overall viewership and revenue of men’s sports, but men’s sports are not inherently more exciting or fun to watch than women’s are. The joy or beauty of one sport or another is subjective, not an objective truth.

It’s certainly true that the interest in sports is subjective, but does that support the argument, that if every Sunday had a few hours of women doing triple axels, would be become devoted fans and watchers? If there is a large enough viewership for women’s sports, would it not find a place somewhere on cable TV, catch at least Squid Games momentum and make the broadcast network chiefs heads spin for ignoring the fabulous sports programming? Yet, it hasn’t happened and while heads may spin, this isn’t the reason why.

In 2017 more than a third of Americans said football was their favorite sport to watch, for example, and each fall, Americans glue themselves to their screens to watch it. But is the male-dominated sport of football really that much more compelling than the less gendered game of soccer? That’s a sport the rest of the world seems to enjoy much more than Americans do, and it’s one in which American professional women’s teams win more on the international stage than our men’s teams.

Soccer, or futbol as the rest of the world calls it, offers a fair example. It’s true that it’s the favorite sport elsewhere, but not here. It’s true that American women’s soccer does better internationally than American men’s soccer, and yet our nationalistic tendencies don’t seem to kick in and cause us to embrace it as a sport American’s care about. Why?

Part of the problem is the way we think about sports is a vestige of our fixation on nationalism and military strength — spheres that men also have dominated. Traditional American public school physical education, with the pull-ups and push-ups of the Presidential Fitness Test, began amid Cold War fears that we were not producing enough combat-ready American men. The sports events we stage today continue to pantomime militarism and war — complete with societally enforced adherence to prescribed behavior during the national anthem. Our sports showcase our strength, and Americans generally see strength as a male trait.

An interesting point. But does this prevent women from coming up with their own sports that favor their strengths and interest? Does this prevent other women from attending women’s sporting events and watching them on television so that they are broadcast more frequently? Does this prevent men from being interested in women’s sports too?

“Mainstream sports media works to actively build and maintain audience knowledge, interest and excitement for these men’s sports,” the study authors wrote. One of the authors put it bluntly: “Our analysis shows men’s sports are the appetizer, the main course and the dessert, and if there’s any mention of women’s sports, it comes across as begrudging ‘eat your vegetables’ without the kind of bells and whistles and excitement with which they describe men’s sports and athletes.”

It would seem obvious that there is a cause and effect relationship between what sports receive attention and what athletes are paid. But is that because women’s sports aren’t given the opportunity to gain our interest and devotion? Certainly women tennis players like the Williams sisters have enjoyed a good deal of public interest and prominence, as have their predecessors, Billy Jean King and Martina Navratolova, but why not Megan Rapinoe, the US soccer team’s whupping by the Dallas FC under-15 squad notwithstanding? Do we need to “reimagine” women’s sports to get the public to care or is the problem that women’s sports are deprived of the opportunity to gain public interest and, accordingly, big money?

7 thoughts on “The Other Title IX, Reimagining Women’s Sports

  1. Dan

    From TFA:

    > leave women competing on standards that exclude us, where in most cases we are not set up to thrive.

    Guess what, lady? In most cases, men “are not set up to thrive” there either. That’s what (in this context) “thrive” means: “to excel,” or to do markedly better than most others. That’s why they’re professionals, and why they get the big bucks–if anyone could do it, Aaron Rodgers wouldn’t be making $50M/year. Women, “in most cases,” “are not set up to thrive” on the soccer field either.

  2. Hunting Guy

    Triple axle, bah.

    You want a woman’s sport that would make me sit up in my recliner and spill my beer cheering?

    Woman’s curling, that’s what.

    The drama as the sweepers guide the stone, the anticipation as the stone glides across the ice, the “thunk” as one stone knocks another out of the ring.

    That’s a woman’s sport I could get behind.

  3. Elpey P.

    Apologies for going there despite the warning, but It’s a little hard to ignore the heresy since this article flies in the face of the tsunami of media and elite arguments that would have female sports dismantled entirely. And it’s in the New York Times, which has been among those at the forefront of these efforts. You could put this article in National Review instead and use it to stir up a Twitter storm of outrage and possibly get banned from the platform for retweeting excerpts from it.

    But it’s also related in that this paradigm shift she wants to see is in opposition to the paradigm that wants to co-opt and reinforce gender stereotypes of masculinity and femininity for their social potency and their culture war potential. Competition makes performance relative and sports performance is commonly about much more than brute strength, but the culture of policing and excluding diversity *within* gender (“Boys [are those who] do sports! Girls [are those who] do dolls!”) makes it much harder to “reimagine women’s sports” than an authentically progressive societal attitude toward gender would. Yes, she’s swimming upstream not just against sports culture — good for her, people should critique culture more — but also against the rest of her colleagues and much of her neoliberal audience, who in their cognitive dissonance applaud her points while handwringing over the ramifications of sex categories in sports.

  4. Grant

    Looking up some lies and statistics, about 39% of men are sports fans versus about 12% of women. So what this re-imagining of woman’s sports would have to do is either (a) convince men to watch women’s sports when men watch sports, or (b) convince more women to watch sports and assume they’ll watch women.

    If your approach is the latter, than redefining sports to appeal to women may have merit. If your approach is the former, good luck.

    1. SHG Post author

      In the early Title IX days, the big problem was finding enough women interested in sports to get the numbers up to match the men’s teams. It couldn’t be done, and schools terminated men’s teams in order to avoid DoE bureaucrats who would look at numbers and find the school out of compliance.

      You can only provide opportunity. You can’t force interest where it doesn’t exist, whether playing or watching.

  5. Brian Cowles

    I have no idea what the answer might be, but I suspect the UCONN women’s basketball team would be an instructive case study – they (quite justifiably) far outrank the men’s team for people’s interest, but as soon as the players enter the WNBA interest drops off precipitously.

  6. L. Phillips

    Two words. Sand volleyball.

    Now if I could just get the frau to quit tapping me not to gently on the head with a rolled up magazine when I try to watch it. Talk about not supporting your sporting sisters.

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