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Women’s sports expert Nicole LaVoi talks unintended consequences of Title IX

As part of her project Title IX at 50: Educate & Advocate, Distinguished Professor of Humanics Kathleen Mangano interviewed Title IX expert Nicole LaVoi — a senior lecturer in social and behavioral sciences at the University of Minnesota, where she is the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport – about how the law helped some, but not all, female athletes. A webcast of the full interview can be viewed at springfield.edu/TitleIXat50. An excerpt of their conversation follows.

Kathy Mangano: How has Title IX improved gender disparities and inequities in sports and physical activity?

Nicole LaVoi: The first thing to remind everyone is that Title IX is not just a sports law but since we’re talking in the sports context, it has dramatically and irrevocably changed the landscape of participation for girls and women in sports. We’ve gone from 1 in 27 girls playing sports in 1972 in school systems to 1 in 3 now. With that participation increase, the key is that it now gives girls and women access and helps them accrue positive health, developmental, academic and psychosocial outcomes that boys and men had been afforded prior to Title IX.

Mangano: Since 1993, the Tucker Center for research on women and girls in sport has been at the forefront of research and in bringing attention to these paradoxical effects. What are the unintended consequences of Title IX for girls and women in sports?

LaVoi: That’s a great question. I get that one a lot. One is the decline and current stagnation of women in sport leadership positions. The reason why that matters is because same-identity role models matter for girls and women and we need to see women in positions of power for self-perception, emulation, career aspirations. The second unintended consequence is that women’s sports used to be run by women, in the AIAW. When the NCAA took over the running of women’s sports championships that also impacted the decline in women sport leadership roles. Women’s sports became more lucrative and visible and powerful and the NCAA said, “We would like to get in the game on that.” Some people frame it as a hostile takeover, and others say it was a business imperative. A third consequence is that Title IX is often scapegoated for the cutting of men’s sports, which is a false narrative and an unfair one. The fourth one is that while sport participation has certainly gone up for women and girls, there are certain groups that Title IX has benefited – white girls and girls in sports that are typically associated with higher socio-economic status. Title IX has not benefited all girls equally.

Mangano: Would you share a personal impactful Title IX story?

LaVoi: The first one happened in 1979. I was 10 years old, Title IX had started to take hold, I was in fifth grade and I wanted to play basketball. There was not a girls team, but they did have a boys team so I was allowed to try out for the boys team. I made the team, me and one other girl. The next day I got called to the principal’s office. I thought, “Great! The principal is going to congratulate me on making the team.” I was proud and excited. I got to the principal’s office and the look on his face told me I wasn’t there to be congratulated. He looked very stern and kind of grumpy. He said, “So, young lady, I heard you made the boys basketball team. I said, “Yeah, it’s great. Practice starts tonight and I’m really excited.” He goes, “Well, I’m really hoping you’ll decide not to play and do Girl Scouts or ballet instead.” I was taken aback, even at 10 years old. Being a mini-feminist at the time, I said, “I’m already in girl scouts, I’m not going to do ballet and I want to play basketball.” So I did. But what I didn’t know then but certainly do know was that, because of Title IX he had to let me play on that team. That sort of set my career trajectory, even though I didn’t touch the ball very much because the boys wouldn’t pass to me. There were a lot of tears, and I had to change in the mop closet, but I did play.

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