By Coach Kathy Kemper
Published on 6/18/1997
In the 25 years since it was enacted into law, Title IX – requiring schools to ensure equal opportunity for male and female athletes – has worked a quiet revolution in American women’s and girl’s athletics.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision to let stand a judgment against Brown University, thereby strengthening enforcement of Title IX of the U.S. Education Act Amendment of 1972, has rightly reminded Americans of the powerful changes this historic legislation effected in the course of a single generation. Since 1972, the number of female high school athletes soared from 300,000 to more than 2 million. One in three girls now participates in high school sports, vs. one in two boys. Rarely has any federal legislation so transformed the lives of some many Americans.
But in the various public tributes to Title IX appearing during its silver anniversary year – officially commemorated in Washington yesterday – it often escapes notice that Title IX’s true triumph can be found not in the nation’s locker rooms but in its boardrooms. The law that set out to open playing fields to women ended up helping to level the playing field for women in the corporate world. The connection between the renaissance in women’s athletics and the emergence of a generation of successful women professionals and businesswomen is an important lesson of the Title IX success story.
It is no accident that among key women business leaders at Fortune 500 companies, one study showed that 80 percent participated in sports during childhood. In a recent survey of women in business by the Women’s Sports Foundation, women executives emphasized the importance of their involvement in sports to their corporate success. The survey shows That the greater a woman’s past involvement in organized athletics, the more likely she is to evaluate herself positively in regard to setting objectives, leading a group, motivating others, sharing credit and feeling comfortable in a competitive environment.
Men have always drawn on their experiences in organized athletics to meet the challenges of a competitive workplace. They have always organized their social and professional networks around sports. Women cannot afford to do otherwise.
For many boys, competitive games represent one of their critical formative learning experiences. They learn how to work with others toward a common goal and to accept the outcome, whether in victory of defeat. They test the limits of their own abilities and talents, physical and mental. Today, far too many American girls never share this first learning encounter with athletic competition.
As coach of Georgetown University women’s tennis learn for eight years, I saw repeatedly how the rigors of athletic competition teach young women value of perseverance, self-reliance and the competitive spirit. It is, therefore, a great irony for me to note that today’s conventional wisdom increasingly looks askance at competition in education.
Well-meaning enthusiasts of the so-called self-esteem movement have argued for all manners of new programs to boost girls’ self-esteem as a shortcut to helping them get ahead in the workforce. Some suggest segregating girls from boys in math and science courses, relying on dubious research in child development. Others challenge the place of competition in our schools more generally. Across the country, amazingly, high schools are abandoning the selection of senior class valedictorians so as not to undermine students’ self-esteem.
This strange trend flies in the face of everything we have learned from our long experience with Title IX. Our daughters – no less than our sons – need more competition, not less. We owe them raised expectations, not diminished standards.
A recent U. S. News-Bozell poll shows that an overwhelming 84 percent of Americans believe that sports involvement helps people in the business world. Acting on this commonsense truth, we need to make major national commitment to supporting girls’ organized athletics as a time-tested and proven way of inculcating the values and skills they will need to compete effectively in business.
We should begin by re-focusing attention and resources on girls’ athletics. Community organizations and corporations can play a pivotal role by sponsoring the kinds of athletic scholarships, prizes and competitions that have always flowed to male athletes. The same corporations that now sponsor Bring Your Daughters to Work Days could sponsor girls’ sports teams and leagues. These concrete steps, beginning in the private sector, would – much more so than public speeches and tributes – serve as a fitting commemoration on the silver anniversary of Title IX.
Women fought long and hard to win a level playing field. Now the time has come for their daughters to take the field and learn the rules of the game.
Kathy Kemper, a tennis professional, is a fellow of the Institute of Education and president of a tennis management firm.