Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Rose LaValle, and the rest of the U.S. women’s soccer team hadn’t even won the World Cup before the commentators were attributing the victory to an American law, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
“USA’s formidable women’s soccer team is no accident. It’s a product of public policy,” was the headline over a Guardian column by Moira Donegan.
Donegan wrote in part that “title IX created opportunity and incentive for girls to play sports.”
The Guardian column used statistics to support its point: “In 1972, when title IX was passed, there were only 700 girls playing soccer at the high-school level in the whole United States. By 1991, the year of the first Women’s World Cup, there were 121,722 high school girl players – a 17,000% increase. That number has more than doubled since: in 2018, there were 390,482 high school girl soccer players.”
Those statistics are remarkable. Donegan omits important context, though, by failing to tell readers what happened to boys’ soccer during this same period. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, which was the Guardian’s source of the girls numbers, the number of boys participating in soccer soared to 456,362 in 2017-2018 from 228,380 in 1990-1991 and from 78,510 in 1971.
There are various ways one might interpret these statistics. One of them might be to say that it’s not zero-sum; an increase in girls’ participation in a sport needn’t come at the expense of boys’ participation, notwithstanding reports of colleges eliminating mens’ sports ostensibly to assure Title IX compliance. But one also might argue that a substantial portion of the growth in the popularity of American soccer has had nothing to do with the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination, but rather had to do with factors entirely unrelated to the law. After all, boys’ participation in soccer increased nearly sixfold during this period.
What are the other factors influencing this rise in popularity? One writer who looked at the issue, Zak Shaikh, mentioned “the growth of the Hispanic population in the US …Soccer is the number one sport in Central and South America, so American Latinos bring with them a strong soccer tradition.” Perhaps one might argue that that, too is a product of public policy, not of education law but of immigration law, though soccer is plenty popular in other parts of the world, too. Maybe the rise of American soccer is linked to the increasingly global entertainment economy, a consequence of technological progress and liberalizing economic trends. One might speculate about other factors. Soccer fits the suburban lifestyle of a postwar America made possible by interstate highways and the automobile. It’s easier to fit a soccer field in a suburban park than in a dense city. Soccer also is less expensive than, say, downhill skiing, golf, hockey, or horseback riding, and thus fits the budget of resource-constrained school districts and families.
Attributing the World Cup victory to the change in the law also risks confusing the effects of that legal change with the other changes in politics, culture and popular attitudes that made the legal change possible. Edith Green, one of the mothers of the Title IX law, was elected to Congress in 1954; another co-sponsor of the law, Patsy Mink, was elected in 1964. Billie Jean King was winning Wimbledon and U.S. Open tennis titles in the 1960s, before Title IX. The first women ran the Boston Marathon in the late 1960s. Shirley Chisholm was elected to Congress in 1968 and Bella Abzug was elected to Congress in 1970. Ms. magazine launched as an insert to New York magazine in December 1971, before Title IX. These legal and cultural trends can be hard to disentangle, and they can be self-reinforcing, but the legal changes tend to stick more when they follow the cultural trends rather than precede them.
That’s not a criticism of Title IX or of other antidiscrimination laws. They are important as expressions of community values. The mechanisms they have created have indeed been valuable in remedying sex discrimination, though not in eliminating it. An economist at the University of Michigan who has studied the issue, Betsey Stevenson, wrote in a 2007 paper that “the passage of this legislation led to a large and discrete change in female sports participation,” though she did also acknowledge, “It is difficult to assess what would have happened to girls’ participation in high school sports in the absence of the policy intervention.” (One way to assess that could be to look at Canada, where there was no Title IX legislation, though there have been some influential court decisions. A 2005 report from Statistics Canada found, “The rate of involvement in soccer was the same for boys and girls despite the fact that overall, boys tend to be more active in sport than girls.” Perhaps Canadian girls were inspired to play soccer by the cultural influence of their neighbors to the south.)
But giving the law too much credit for the American victory is a mistake. Title IX doesn’t explain why so many American and Canadian girls (and boys) choose soccer instead of field hockey or water polo or badminton. Focusing on the law diminishes the roles of parents, coaches, luck, and, most important, the skill, talent, and hard work of the athletes themselves. In some ways, it reeks of sexism — it gives the credit for the victory to President Nixon, who signed the Education Amendments into law, rather than to the ones who really deserve the glory, our world champion woman soccer players.
When American men win the Olympic gold medal in basketball or baseball, no one credits the congressionally provided antitrust exemption for professional sports leagues. It’s only the women who are asked to share the spotlight with politicians who supposedly made it all possible. The whole episode is additional evidence that, in sports as elsewhere, ending discrimination is, unfortunately, much more complicated than merely passing a law.
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.