Title IX, the 1972 Educational Amendments to the Civil Rights Act, has become synonymous with gender equity in sports. The law, as interpreted, requires universities to field equal numbers of men’s and women’s teams. Title IX has transformed women’s sports in high schools and universities but has led to some unintended consequences. By requiring that women and men field the same number of Division I teams in college sports, without regard to the available talent pool, Title IX may be causing greater inequality in outcomes among women’s teams.
Gender equity in youth, high school, and college sports is an admirable goal. Many young women have benefited greatly from the opportunity to participate in organized sports. My daughter is one of them. She was an All-American in youth track and field and cross country, runs competitively in high school, and is likely to continue her competitive running in college. Women should have an equal opportunity to participate in organized sports in educational institutions.
There are, however, different ways to define gender equity in sports. The courts have decided that equity is achieved through equal numbers of women’s and men’s teams. The quality of athletic competition is not “equal” across sports divisions just because the divisions have the same number of teams. Sports leagues want parity; athletic competition is enhanced by comparably matched teams. The overall quality of competition is diminished if a small number of teams consistently defeat their opponents by a wide margin and win a disproportionate share of games and championships. Unfortunately this appears to be more common in women’s collegiate sports than in men’s.
Title IX encourages universities to field more women’s teams even if expansion does not enhance the quality of the competition for participating athletes. The more women’s athletic scholarships a school awards and the more women’s teams it fields, the more men’s teams and scholarships it can have. There are 333 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball teams because this is required for gender equity, not because there are 4000 women talented enough to compete at the same level.
There are many statistics I could cite to demonstrate that the talent pool in women’s college sports may be spread too thin. The University of North Carolina won 21 of 30 NCAA Soccer Championships. Georgia and Auburn have won 9 of the last 12 Division I Swimming Championships and finished second another 8 times. The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team recently won 90 straight games and Stanford and Penn State have won 10 of the last 20 Division I NCAA Volleyball Championships and finished second another 8 times.
The best comparison may be between Division I women’s and men’s basketball. In the NCAA tournament the top four women’s seeds lose less than 2% of their opening round games while the top four men’s seeds lose about 10% of their opening round games. The lack of parity in women’s basketball is also evident from point differentials in the regular season. The following chart compares the average point differentials between ranked and unranked teams and between teams ranked 1 to 10 and those ranked 11 to 25 over the past two regular seasons.
Women’s games are often characterized by unequally matched teams and lopsided scores. This may be because the available talent pool for women’s basketball is spread too thin. If one cares about both the quality of the competition and participation the optimal number of women’s Division I basketball teams may be less than the number of men’s teams.
Equal opportunity, according to the courts, is achieved by equalizing teams and scholarships by gender. Gender equity in the quality of competition will not be achieved in this way if men’s and women’s talent pools aren’t comparably deep. I would like to see more emphasis on the quality of competition rather than simply the quantity of athletes and teams. Women’s collegiate sports should provide the greatest aggregate benefits to participants even if that might mean fewer teams at the Division I level.