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College Athletes: Politically aware and prepared to mobilize on gender inequality, new study finds

How do college athletes, among Title IX’s principal beneficiaries, feel about sex equity in sports?  A new study surveyed over 1600 current college athletes in the Big Ten Conference and found significant support for sex equitable treatment between women and men in college athletics, and a willingness among many athletes to mobilize politically when they observe discriminatory treatment.  This research*, forthcoming at the peer-reviewed journal Political Research Quarterly, demonstrates that forty-five years after the passage of Title IX, college athletes – particularly women athletes, and men who perceive the persistence of sex discrimination in American society – remain aware of and politically engaged about the problems of enduring sex inequalities within college sports.

Researchers investigated three questions to audit opinion regarding equality concerns.  They examined: 1) how current athletes believe resources and opportunities should be distributed across women’s and men’s teams, 2) how college athletes perceive the actual treatment of male versus female athletes in their own athletic departments, and 3) whether current athletes are likely to take action when they observe inequitable treatment.

To assess these issues, researchers investigated athlete opinion toward how athletic departments should treat women versus men on twenty-four different measures, from athletic scholarships, participation opportunities, coaching, recruiting, and more (full details regarding all survey questions can be found in the study appendix).  Researchers then asked how survey respondents think women and men are actually treated on the same metrics.  The twenty-four measures were selected because they include the methods used by the U.S. federal government to assess sex equity practices of athletic departments under both Title IX and the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA).  Athletes were also asked about their knowledge of Title IX specifically, their opinions on sex discrimination in society more generally, and their likelihood of taking political action (such as writing letters, talking with coaches or athletic administration, signing a petition, or participating in a protest) to express their opinions about sex equity in sports.

Objectively, inequities in resource allocation and athletic opportunity persist in contemporary college athletics (this, according to the annual EADA reports to the U.S. Department of Education which are detailed in the study appendix for the specific institutions studied). The forthcoming social science research demonstrates that women athletes, as well as men who are aware of broader patterns of gender inequality in society, are conscious of these unequal distributions within their own athletic departments.  What’s more, the clear majority of athletes would prefer to see full equality in the treatment of women and men in college sports. The statistical analyses suggest that student-athletes’ beliefs about how resources should be distributed are in agreement with policy guidelines established under Title IX, even as they notice that current practices often fall short.

Relatedly, the research shows that women athletes, and male athletes who are conscious of persistent sex discrimination more generally are likely to consider political action in response to perceived gender inequalities in athletics.  They are also likely to understand the purpose and focus of Title IX itself.  In short, college athletes are an important political constituency.  Many possess knowledge of public policy and are poised to respond to inequities.

This study suggests that among the consequences of Title IX’s implementation is that a majority of women athletes and many of their male allies understand that equity remains an important right afforded by public policy and perceive themselves as deserving of equal treatment.  The long history of advocacy and mobilization to fully implement Title IX remains an essential element in the lives of athletes – women athletes, in particular – forty-five years after the law was passed.

Additionally, when the 45th anniversary of Title IX was commemorated last year, the Women’s Sports Foundation commissioned a national poll on public support for Title IX and girls’ equitable participation in sports in order to demonstrate continued need to ensure equal access to athletic opportunities for girls and women.

The research found that while 86% of U.S. adults agree that participating in sports promotes leadership and teamwork skills, only four in ten U.S. adults know what steps they could take to help girls become more active in sports.

This, along with other important data gathered from the report, reinforces the need to secure equal opportunities for girls and women in sports and ensuring that they are aware of the rights that Title IX protects.

Read the full report and learn more Title IX and Girls in Sport Poll Report.

*The new research was conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Sharrow, an assistant professor of Political Science and History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a former college rowing coach and varsity coxswain.  Her research explores the politics of Title IX and includes a book manuscript on the political history of sex equity policy.  She conducted the study referenced in this post in collaboration with James Druckman (Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science) and Jacob Rothschild of Northwestern University.