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Title IX’s Disappointing Effects on Leadership in Athletics

Provisions in the Education Amendments of 1972, now referred to simply as “Title IX,” were enacted to eliminate gender-based discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding, which by extension includes almost all colleges and universities as well as public primary and secondary schools. While Title IX affects all aspects of school programming and extracurricular activities, it had a particular impact on athletic programs because of the outstanding disparities that existed at the time of enactment.

Now, more than 50 years later, programs for students have achieved a much greater parity. But the opportunities for women in leadership roles have not expanded at the same rate, particularly for women of color. Female administrators and coaches remain underrepresented in athletic departments at all levels. This area deserves serious attention.

Looking at the Numbers

The passage of Title IX undoubtedly changed the makeup of high school and college athletics from the student perspective. However, studies show that opportunities for female coaches have decreased in the years since and that there are far fewer female leaders in athletic departments than in earlier decades. Although Title IX efforts increased the total number of coaching positions available by 185%, nearly all of these additional positions were taken by men.

Before Title IX, women’s sports were administered by a variety of different organizations such as the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. After Title IX took effect, many of these organizations disappeared or became incorporated into the NCAA, which was dominated by male leaders. On campuses, women’s athletic departments that had been headed up by women were merged with the larger men’s departments, and again, leadership roles remained with men. 

The Problem Starts at Entry Level

Many athletic administrators begin their careers as coaches. Fewer women starting out in coaching roles means that fewer women have the opportunity to be promoted through the ranks to a more advanced leadership or administrative role. So it is vital to address the disparity at the entry level of employment in athletic programs.

Long-term studies have reported that close to three-quarters of jobs in athletic administration are held by men. Only about 3% of men’s teams are coached by women, and women also coach less than half of the women’s teams as well. Experience as a coach is often looked on as a prerequisite to other leadership positions in sports programs, so the lack of coaching opportunities is a significant factor in keeping women away from leadership roles. Various reasons have been suggested for the discrepancy, from blatant discrimination in a male-dominated field to patterns of career development.

Sporting competitions have traditionally been used to train boys to become warriors, and even if that training aspect has faded culturally, the roots of the training mindset still tend to reinforce sports as a way to prove manhood.  Many believe that sports jobs are obtained primarily through an “old boys’ network” that excludes women and that women who consider or start out in coaching careers become discouraged by the constant need to prove themselves. This leads to high turnover and exacerbates the problem.

Mentorship Can Make a Difference

Experts have noted that mentorship can help overcome some of the challenges women face as they work their way into leadership positions. A mentor provides critical social support and encourages professional development, fostering a culture of inclusivity. Where women lack role models, a connection with a mentor takes on even greater importance.

While the pool of mentors can be low in some environments, a dedicated effort to connect new and prospective coaches with experienced coaches and administrators can help develop stronger networks and lead more women to continue on the career path in athletic leadership.  Coaching roles in particular impact the perception of a sport and its athletes. Powerful, effective female coaches provide a more complete environment for the development of their athletes.

Fewer Opportunities for Women of Color

The discouraging statistics for women in sports leadership become even more dismal when race is taken into consideration.  For instance, studies report that black women hold a little more than 10% of head coaching positions in women’s Division I basketball, despite the predominance of black athletes participating on the teams they coach.  While white women make up close to 50% of assistant coaching positions at this level, only 16% are held by black women.

With the perceptions of athletics still favoring men, black women face layers of discrimination based on both race and gender. They often find themselves excluded from educational training networks and the even more important informal social networks that can lead to career enhancement. Lack of diversity, in turn, leads to a lack of support.

Some believe that stereotypes further limit the opportunities of black women in sports leadership. As an example, they point to Coach Bernadette Locke-Mattox, who was hired as Assistant Coach of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team to change the image of the team after they had been put on probation for violating NCAA recruiting rules. She proved effective but only because she was relatable through the trope of a “mammy.” Her department, players, and players’ families viewed her not only as a coach but also as a mother figure. Moreover, she was “hired” initially as an unpaid volunteer.

Many black female assistant coaches feel that they are being used just to promote the concept of diversity, being used to recruit players by making it appear as though the institution they work for values diversity. These coaches feel that they are being used as tokens and that their true coaching skills are being ignored.

Taking Advantage of Title IX Opportunities to Level the Playing Field

While Title IX has helped create opportunities for female athletes, more could be done to address inequalities in coaching and other leadership positions. Success will likely require a combination of approaches.

At Duffy Law, we are committed to making the best use of Title IX provisions to provide fair opportunities for students, faculty, and staff at educational institutions. If you are in a position where you have been denied equal treatment or face other forms of discrimination or harassment, we would like to talk to you about your options for legal relief.

Felice Duffy

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Attorney At Duffy Law

Attorney Felice Duffy served as an Assistant United States Attorney for ten years after beginning her legal career at two prestigious firms (one in CT and one in NY) and then clerking for two federal judges. A life-long Title IX advocate, she brought a legal action under the then-new Title IX statute against UCONN while an undergraduate to compel the creation of its women’s varsity soccer program. She went on to become a first-team Division I All-American, was selected to be on the first U.S. National Women’s Team, and spent 10 years as Head Coach of the Yale women's soccer team. Attorney Duffy has Ph.D. in Education/Sports Psychology and has spoken to, and conducted trainings for, over 50 schools and organizations on a wide range of topics involving athletics, the law, and social justice. You can reach Felice at (203) 946-2000.