Taking Women College Athletes Seriously in the Political Arena
By Elizabeth Sharrow | May 8, 2018
Despite a surge in activism targeting sexual harassment and assault, many Americans were surprised to watch the mobilization of over 160 women athletes at the sexual abuse trial of former USA Gymnastics’ team doctor Larry Nassar. But their engagement was no one-off event. As college students and faculty remain at the forefront of advocacy around sex non-discrimination policies like Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the public conversation seems conspicuously absent an understanding of women athletes as policy beneficiaries poised to organize around feminist issues and policy debates.
And the political power of these women athletes is not limited to confronting sexual predation – these athletes have the potential to challenge the economic model of college sports, one that now privileges the almost entirely male sport, football.
Our new study, forthcoming at Political Research Quarterly, surveyed over 1,600 current college athletes in the Big Ten Conference. We focused on athlete opinion regarding the sex equity practices of college athletics and their propensity toward political mobilization in response to such inequities. We investigated three issues: 1) perceptions about the actual distribution of resources and opportunities across women’s and men’s teams, 2) opinions about how resources and opportunities should be distributed between men and women in their home athletic departments, and 3) judgements regarding the likelihood of respondents to take action if or when they observe biased treatment.
We found evidence of three significant trends: 1) athletes are aware of extant inequities between women and men in college sports, 2) athletes support more sex equitable treatment between women and men in college athletics, and 3) many athletes are willing to mobilize politically to express their opinions. These findings were most pronounced among women athletes and men who recognized the persistence of sex discrimination in American society (these male athletes might be thought of as “allies”).
Like their contemporaries in professional sports, college athletes appear poised to actively confound the myth that sports are apolitical. Among women athletes and their allies, the stereotypes of comparative disengagement (vis-à-vis other college students) need updating.
We used 24 measures employed 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) to investigate perceptions and opinions regarding the treatment of athletes by their athletic departments. These include athletic scholarships, participation opportunities, coaching, recruiting, and more (full details regarding all survey questions can be found in the study appendix). For each, respondents were directed to reflect on how their home university, across all sports, actually distributes resources between women and men, as well as how respondents think women and men should be treated on the same metrics. Respondents were asked about their knowledge of Title IX specifically, their opinions on sex discrimination in society more generally, and their likelihood of taking political action to express their opinions about sex equity in sports (through writing letters, talking with coaches or athletic administration, signing a petition, or participating in a protest).
Objectively, as a result of the profit-seeking measures pursued by athletic departments, sex-based imbalances 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 Big Ten schools).
Title IX does not require strict equality in spending, and it therefore does not foreclose investment by athletic departments in their financial and economic interests. Our study found that women athletes and their allies are conscious of these unequal distributions and would prefer to see equal treatment, where neither sex is more or less advantaged than the other. Further statistical analyses suggest that student-athletes’ beliefs about how resources should be distributed are largely in agreement with policy guidelines—even in favor of greater redistribution of resources toward women athletes. They express significant likelihood to take political action to express their opinions on equity issues and are also likely to accurately understand the purpose and focus of Title IX itself.
These results suggest that many women athletes and their allies possess critical knowledge of public policy and are poised to respond to the status quo.
Their awareness presents an emerging challenge to the economic model of college sports which dominates at the NCAA Division I level. Title IX’s equity imperative, with its equal opportunities and scholarship requirements as well as its protections from abjectly imbalanced treatment, means that women athletes and their allies have robust, federal-level backing in U.S. civil rights policy with which to challenge the economic model for college sports if or when they so choose.
Contrary to many media framings, the long history of advocacy and mobilization to demand enforcement of Title IX remains an essential element in the lives of athletes—women athletes, in particular.
Simultaneously, the high-profile, masculine sports like college football are increasingly under scrutiny: those who acknowledge the violence and bodily trauma at the core of the sport recognize that the health impacts of football may make the sport itself untenable. As medical doctors and brain scientists problematize the consequences of our cultural obsession with the spectacle of football, the economic model for college athletics comes, increasingly, under critique. Although it is impossible to overstate the centrality of football to the contemporary order of college athletics, there is growing ambivalence toward the spending patterns that fuel it.
Women athletes and their allies now outnumber the empowered minority who determine the financial order of the status quo. Our research suggests that Title IX, in its ongoing implementation and through its federally-protected rights, has already planted the seeds for activism which could engender a different future for college sports.