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40 Years After Title IX, the Playing Field Still Isn't Level

The Women's Professional Soccer league "permanently suspended" operations, showing just how much further women's sports have to go.

This should be a happy month for female athletes and their supporters. A slew of events will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation that banned gender discrimination in education (including sports). Some might have been too busy planning festivities to notice a quiet business decision that makes clear just how much further women's sports have to go.

On May 18, the Women's Professional Soccer league "permanently suspended" operations, becoming the second pro soccer league for women to go belly-up in the past 10 years. The decision came less than a year after the American women's team drew huge ratings—and a silver medal—in the World Cup, and just two months before the same team is scheduled to kick off in the Olympics, most likely to similar excitement. But as much as fans love watching women play soccer in those marquee events, they never turned out in large enough numbers to make a regular league viable (attendance at WPS games dropped after World Cup mania).

For anyone who believes in the ideal of Title IX—giving women and men equal opportunities to play sports—the league's shuttering comes as a blow. No matter how many girls get to play sports in high school and college as a result of the measure, the best ones still aren't able to make a living doing what they love. And while legislation is the answer to a lot of problems related to the equality of access, it can't solve a failing business model.

The benefits of Title IX are myriad: Studies show it caused an increase in the number of women pursuing higher education and getting jobs, as well as an overall increase in the health of young women. Simply giving girls the opportunity to play sports caused a huge increase in the number who signed up; within six years of the measure's passage, the percentage of girls playing high school sports had skyrocketed from 4 to 25. And despite paranoia that helping women somehow hurts men, this chart from the Women's Sports Foundation shows the opposite effect.

It's true that colleges across the country have killed off men's sports teams in the Title IX era, and that in all but five sports the women's teams are allotted more scholarships than men (College soccer teams have 14 scholarships for women per school, as opposed to 9.9 for men). But to blame that imbalance on Title IX, as many have, is misguided. Rowing, the sport with the most scholarship opportunities for women, offers 20 per year at each college. Football offers men a whopping 85 per school. Title IX didn't cause colleges to cut men's teams in other sports—the NCAA's desire to support King Football did. And men still make up nearly 70 percent of college athletes, offering further evidence that Title IX is hardly the bogeyman conservative "men's rights" advocates believe it to be.

Not only that, Title IX deals exclusively with institutions receiving federal funds, which gives it no way to help create anything close to equality in the professional world. Those 14 scholarships per school are nice for women's soccer players, but they don't get those players any closer to making a living. Equality runs out as soon as players receive their diplomas.

Commissioners of men's leagues have a responsibility to step up and support women's teams when they can afford to, as David Stern has done for the WNBA. That wasn't yet an option in soccer's case because Major League Soccer, the men's league, has major financial challenges of its own, as U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati made clear in his remarks on the demise of the WPS. The MLS is inching toward profitability, and as soon as it's feasible the league's administrators must make a point of supporting the women's game.

But fans have a responsibility, too. Supporting Title IX's ideals requires supporting women's sports at all levels. Too many soccer fans were content to celebrate Brandi Chastain's and Hope Solo's accomplishments on the international stage but not at home. Too many basketball fans condemn the women's game as "boring" without ever having attended a game. True gender equality in pro sports may be just as unattainable as it is in colleges. But 40 years after Title IX, we all have the power to continue the hard work of leveling the playing field.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user stevendepolo

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