Playing at night under the klieg lights of Gallaudet’s splendid new astroturf field, Trinity’s Soccer team mounted a valiant effort last night, losing to Gallaudet by the slimmest of margins 1-0. But as I watched our students deftly maneuver the ball around the field, I found myself contemplating those bright lights and that astroturf, and meditating on the fact that men’s football still rules when it comes to college sports and women’s opportunities. But for the Gallaudet football team, I somehow doubt that the women’s soccer team would have been able to play a night game.
There’s a great deal of talk, sometimes quite heated, about the allegation that Title IX somehow undermined mens’ sports. Title IX is the federal law that passed in 1972 mandating equality of gender opportunity in higher education. In recent years, some opponents of Title IX have claimed that, as women have become the majority population in higher education, men’s sports are suffering due to the gender balance rules in the law. Suffering. Like the way women suffered all those years before Title IX when we played basketball in drafty quonset huts on the edges of campuses where we had to put our foot against the wall to be out-of-bounds, changing sweaty uniforms in cars because there were no locker rooms, since real athletic facilities were for men only. Before Title IX, success for a women’s team meant getting new hockey sticks every few years.
Everything changed for women’s opportunities in higher education after 1972; the impact on women’s sports became the most visible symbol of changed opportunities throughout the academy. Women athletes flocked to Division I universities because they had new opportunities for high-level competition in superior athletic facilities. Even as women’s sports gained equality and glamour, women’s educational and employment opportunities in higher education also changed dramatically since the law prohibited gender discrimination throughout all parts of education. Those marvelous new athletic facilities and impressively outfitted women’s teams became metaphors for educational opportunity throughout the university.
Ironically, one sector of higher education did not benefit from the advantages that Title IX extended to women — women’s colleges, the very sector that had proven the intellectual prowess and athletic abilities of women for more than a century before the law changed. Women’s colleges were the places that allowed women athletes to play hard and study well, that taught women to be proud of the sweat of hard physical as well as intellectual effort. “Back in the day” we athletes at women’s colleges could play against the women’s teams from big universities — Maryland, GWU, Georgetown — and even beat them from time to time, since we were on “level playing fields” with each other in terms of coaching, facilities and equipment.
After Title IX, the women at the coed universities went on to play in the big arenas and lighted football fields. We women’s colleges had to catch up without having the financial heft of the larger coed schools (and publicly-funded institutions). At Trinity, the creation of the Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports was our statement about finally catching up with Title IX for women’s sports opportunities, and the Trinity Center has been a great success. We are especially grateful for our great partnership with the Women’s Sports Foundation, the organization founded by tennis great Billie Jean King to advocate for women’s opportunities in athletics.
But, football remains king in college sports, with women’s teams reaping the side benefits like having lights for night games. Gender differences remain subtle influences on women’s opportunities in education. We continue to experience this lag even here at Trinity, where our devotion to women’s excellence continues 112 years after our founding. Trinity’s athletics teams played in a women’s college conference until a few years ago when the conference folded after too many of the women’s colleges went coed. Trinity’s teams now play in an independent conference, and our efforts to join an athletic conference in our geographic region have met repeated resistance. Trinity can offer a great location and superior athletic facilities to other universities, but we have been told repeatedly that we lack the one thing that would make it possible for us to join an athletic conference — men’s teams. Seems that “it’s not worth it” for college sports teams to travel for games if only women are playing. Seems that without men’s teams, a university is not considered “as good as” the other schools, and hence, not welcome to the club. Men’s sports still rule the game.
Women’s sports have come a long way since we put our foot against the wall to be out-of-bounds — but we should remain vigilant and mindful that men’s football is the reason for the lights that make it possible for women’s soccer to play on Monday nights.
Thanks to the Trinity Tigers for a great game, and to our coaches and staff who support women’s sports at Trinity!!