Can We Go Beyond Title IX?

The price of being a female athlete is far too high--and coaches are not being held accountable for abuse

Hey, it’s Monday! Sorry to be late, but I went to the eye doctor, and my peepers were so dilated I could barely see the screen until 2:00. Today we are talking sports—if you have a friend who is a fan or whose kids are involved in athletics, please:

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In 1972, Congress passed Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in any educational program or school that receives federal funding. Initially, this made it impossible for certain discriminatory practices to continue: for example, Ivy League universities that were in turmoil over admitting female undergraduates finally did so. Law and medical schools that limited women to a small quota of admissions could no longer legally discriminate because women because “they just got married and had babies” and were thus “taking places that should go to a man.” And women’s sports were finally taken seriously by the general public.

Indeed, now that admitting women to schools on their merit is no longer controversial, Title IX is best known for how it regulates non-academic behavior on campus. It is the structure within which educational institutions adjudicate sexual harassment and sexual assault. But, even earlier, it became the framework within which women’s sports were funded and professionalized at the high school and college levels.

It is not insignificant that Indiana Democrat Birch Bayh, the Senate author and chief sponsor of Title IX, came from a state known for its robust high school and college basketball programs. Bayh knew that athletic achievements translated into educational opportunities through athletic scholarships for many men: that couldn't happen for women unless their sports were elevated to `Varsity status, with the funding and professionalism that status conveyed.

This makes it all the more appalling to see how young female athletes are treated fifty years later.

The last decade has seen several examples of institutionalized sexual assault in university athletic programs that have affected women and men. Michigan State University, the University of San Francisco, the University of Michigan and San Jose State all employed sexual predators in their athletic departments who preyed on young people for years before being exposed and punished. So we can start by saying that, in general, athletes are often not treated well. How these schools handled sexual harassment complaints—ignoring them, or sweeping them under the rug—is part and parcel of how vulnerable an athlete can become in a system where others control their futures and access to the sports they love.

But this week, two new stories suggest a more disturbing theme: sexism, specifically abuse of women, may be deeply embedded in athletics itself.

The first news item comes from Kittanning, a small-ish town in western Pennsylvania’s Armstrong County, where Donald Trump beat Joe Biden by 53 points in 2020 (color me orange, but I think this is important context.) Last week, Mars High School came to Kittanning for a men’s varsity hockey game only to have their goalie—who is a young woman—relentlessly bullied by Kittanning fans. During the game, according to New York Times reporter Isabella Grullón Paz,

a number of Armstrong Junior-Senior High School students began chanting “inappropriate and abusive language” at the Mars goalie, according to the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League. On Thursday, the league announced that Armstrong students would be prohibited from attending games for the remainder of the season, including during the playoffs.

In addition, “the league also required the school to provide a faculty member or administrator to attend every home and away game in order to monitor and report any `inappropriate’ behavior.”

But is it too much to note that the coaching staff of the Kittanning team was actually there during the game—as were the parents of players—and they did nothing to halt this festival of misogyny? That they seemed to think it was just fine to harass a girl for being a girl?

The second story takes us to the troubled world of elite track and field where (to the surprise of no one who has looked at these women’s bodies) it is routine to ask women to lose dangerous amounts of weight on the theory that it makes them faster. And as Jane Coaston, also of the New York Times, reports, six women recently quit the University of Oregon team, “citing fears that the program’s approach to their weight and body fat percentages put them at risk for eating disorders.”

Good for them.

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As Coaston points out, this is an old story: remember Tonya Harding’s coach threatening local restaurants and corner stores to prevent proprietors from selling her food? Forced dieting is a big deal in ballet, skating, and gymnastics, where until relatively recently, being tiny, childlike, and white were the keys to the kingdom.

But as it turns out, being skinny is a vital part of the running ethic too. The body-shaming and pressure to lose weight—or maintain precariously low weights that trigger amenorrhea (the loss of menstrual periods) —is relentless. But coaches have changed the language to frame these demands, not as body shaming, but as health and wellness (my pal Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is the queen of this field of study.)

Demands that female athletes be thin, Coaston explains, have “largely gone undercover. `Weight loss’ is now `fat loss’ or `getting lean.’ Women are told that the point is not to become incredibly thin but to get `fit.’ In practice,” Coaston concludes, “they are one and the same.”

At least one athlete at Oregon alleges that a coach told her that she would not be permitted to compete unless she met criteria based on a DEXA machine, which scans the body to measure body fat percentages. The coach explained that the measuring and pressure weren’t sexist because he wasn’t criticizing athletes’ appearance (which is illegal under Title IX) but taking a scientific measurement.

Yet these numbers were often “dangerously low,” Coaston writes, too low, even, for some women to have the endurance necessary to compete successfully in a sport where athletes sometimes need to burn fat to succeed.

This leaves me with two big questions. First, why are politicians, sports moms, and some so-called feminists obsessed with the very few transgender women in athletic competition when the sports industrial complex itself is capable of abusing female athletes relentlessly and almost invisibly? And the anxiety about transfemale athletes being too strong when coaches are manipulating female athletes’ eating in ways that may be making them weaker?

Second, what can the abuse of women teach us about how athletics needs to be reformed in general?

We know that this kind of abuse is not confined to women and that—without cloaking sexism in science—men’s sports are far more straightforward about forcing men to gain or lose weight. For example, wrestlers are experts at dropping weight through sweating, dieting, and vomiting. And look at those chiseled men’s diving bodies—the evidence that some male athletes are pressured to be thin, too, is staring us in the face.

Yet other men are pressured to be fat: do we really think that huge men wander into weightlifting accidentally? Similarly, football players on the offensive and defensive lines are weighed constantly to ensure that they maintain a minimum size. If they can’t keep their weight up, they can’t play. As a result, whenever they leave the game, linemen have issues with disordered eating that leave them fighting weight gain their entire lives.

But here’s where the comparison stops: male athletes don’t get harassed, groped, and jeered at just for being men. Women do. And women’s bodies are scrutinized relentlessly: for hips and breasts that exceed coaches and judges arbitrary norms; for looking and acting too “male” (have you ever noticed how many female athletes have long hair, even though short hair would be more practical and just as attractive?); and—in the case of the Mars High School goalie—for having the audacity to compete against men and succeed.

Title IX allowed women to compete, but it doesn’t protect anyone. Only a much more lively conversation about the relentless endurance of sexism can even give us a starting place to imagine what equality in athletics—and a humane athletic culture— would look like.

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You are invited:

  • Friday, November 12 from 12:00-5:00 p.m. I am participating in an online unconference (in other words, a participant-driven gathering, where attendees set the agenda), “Logging Off Facebook: What Comes Next?” The conference, organized by Micah Sifry and Kaliyah Young, is intended to coincide with the #TheFacebookLogout campaign, November 10-13. You can pledge to log out of Facebook and Instagram here, sign up for the unconference here, and read more about this event. If my participation isn’t enough to get you there, I also see Astra Taylor and Eli Pariser on the list.

And the grift goes on:

  • Lost, stolen, or strayed? According to Michael S. Schmidt of the New York Times, the State Department’s Inspector General finds that lots of stuff accumulated and purchased (with taxpayer dollars) by the Trump administration have taken a walk. Gifts purchased for foreign leaders stolen by staffers and gifts to Trump officials have disappeared. Under normal conditions, American officials are permitted to give but not receive: aides take charge of gifts, log them in, and put them in the gift vault. Under the Trump administration, many of these objects just wandered off. (November 5, 2021)

  • Very fine people—but only on Trump’s side. Nicole Hemmer, a Columbia University-based historian and opinion writer at CNN, watched Tucker Carlson’s massive disinformation special, “Patriot Purge,” so you don’t have to. Carlson is trying to sell this as a Democratic Reichstag moment: “In this narrative,” Hemmer writes, January 6, “insurrectionists become protagonists—peaceful protesters unfairly targeted as domestic terrorists.” (November 24, 2021)

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