Equity in Sports Has Focused on Gender, Not Race. So Gaps Persist.

In 1998, Traci Green and her Florida teammates posed with an N.C.A.A. women’s tennis championship trophy after defeating Duke in five of six matchups. Green, who received a full scholarship to Florida, smiled proudly, graciously.

“I knew I was a beneficiary of Title IX, due to the history,” Green, 43, said in an interview, recognizing the opportunities that the federal law had created for women and girls in sports since its enactment in 1972.

But Green also knew that she — a Black woman on a team full of white women — represented a small number of athletes.

While Black women are certainly beneficiaries of Title IX, which prohibited sex-based discrimination in educational settings, the door it opened for sports participation has disproportionately helped white women. Black female athletes remain generally underrepresented in most programs, particularly in sports like tennis, swimming and soccer.

“It hasn’t changed that much,” said Green, now the women’s tennis coach at Harvard. She added: “On tennis teams, you’re not going to find more than one Black player.”

A Harvard tennis player, Mihaela Marculescu, practicing with Green.Credit…Sophie Park for The New York Times

For all of the progress made through Title IX, many who study gender equity in sport argue that it didn’t benefit women across all races. White women, they point out, are the law’s primary benefactors, as the statute’s framing on gender equity — without mentioning the intersection of gender with race and income — ignores significant issues faced by many Black female athletes, coaches and administrators.

“It’s sort of good news, bad news when you think of Title IX,” said Ketra Armstrong, a sport management professor and director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Michigan. She added: “We talk about gender equity, but if you look at the numbers, we see it’s white women who are breaking the barriers, who are ascending to these leadership roles to a much greater extent than Black women are, and that’s because we’re more comfortable talking about gender.”

Some experts in sports believe that Title IX cannot solve the racial disparities in athletics.

“Title IX is strictly a gender filter. It’s hard to ask Title IX to solve a gap along the lines of race, or household income or any other category,” said Tom Farrey, a director at the Aspen Institute, which conducts research on youth and school sports in the United States. He added: “The question is do we need additional policies to address these gaps, and I would argue yes.”

Others, like Armstrong, argue that issues of race and gender are tethered, and that Title IX conversations about gender are incomplete without including race because “it’s often the essence of their race that defines them.” She said she feels people see her Blackness first, not her gender, when she walks in a room.

“It has improved opportunities for Black girls and women, and that should not be diminished,” she said. “But let’s just not be misled to think that we’ve arrived, because we haven’t. There’s still unfulfilled promises of Title IX.”

According to the N.C.A.A.’s demographics database, white women made up the largest percentage of female athletes across all three divisions at 68 percent for the 2020-21 academic year. Black women were at 11 percent, and most were concentrated in two sports: Basketball, where they represented 30 percent of female athletes, and indoor and outdoor track and field (20 percent). Black women were barely represented in most other sports — 5 percent or less in softball, tennis, soccer, golf and swimming.

“It’s harder to break into those sports because of these stereotypical notions of what sports Black girls play,” said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor at Penn State who focuses on Black women in sports.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 53 percent of the female U.S. residents enrolled in colleges in the fall of 2020 were white, and nearly 15 percent were Black.

College women’s soccer and softball are among the sports with the lowest participation among Black women.Credit…Adam Glanzman for The New York Times
Credit…Kenneth Ferriera/Lincoln Journal Star, via Associated Press

The divide in college athletics is in line with similar trends in youth sports.

A March study by the National Women’s Law Center found a big split in sports opportunities between high schools that were heavily white, with a student body at least 90 percent white, or heavily nonwhite, at least 90 percent nonwhite. The study found that heavily white schools had double the sports opportunities of heavily nonwhite ones. And for girls in heavily nonwhite schools, there were far fewer spots on teams than for girls in heavily white schools, the study said.

The study said some of the gaps were “a strong indicator of lack of compliance with Title IX,” and that sports like volleyball and soccer, with less participation by nonwhite athletes, have been more likely to lead to opportunities to play in college.

In college sports, track and field and basketball have been more accessible and conventional for Black girls.

Carolyn Peck, who had stints coaching college and professional women’s basketball from 1993 to 2018, remembered watching C. Vivian Stringer coach women’s basketball in the late 1980s. Stringer, a Black woman, showed Peck what was possible.

Coach C. Vivian Stringer celebrating with her Rutgers a win over Connecticut in 1998.Credit…Jeff Zelevansky/Associated Press

“All eyes were glued on her from the Black community because she was pretty much the only one that was coaching on that national stage,” she said.

Peck, who is from a predominantly white community in Jefferson City, Tenn., had access to an array of sports when she was younger — including basketball and swimming. She chose basketball in part because she had the talent and was one of the tallest children in her school, but also because it was the only sport she connected with.

Peck played at Vanderbilt on a full scholarship and earned her first coaching job as an assistant for Pat Summitt, the influential Tennessee women’s basketball coach who won eight N.C.A.A. championships. As Purdue’s head coach in 1998, Peck became the first African American woman to win a national title.

“If it weren’t for Title IX, I may not have had, not only an opportunity to play a sport,” Peck said, “but also to go to college on a free education, to be able to get into the profession of coaching.”

Coach Carolyn Peck watching her Purdue team in practice in 1999.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Access and cost remain huge barriers to entry for girls of color. A boom in participation rates for girls in high school — 3.4 million in 2019 from 1.85 million in 1978-79 — significantly helped girls who lived in school districts that had the resources to offer more sports teams and opportunities. But girls of color, even those from middle class or wealthier families, often grow up in school districts with fewer opportunities.

Maisha Kelly, 44, the athletic director at Drexel and one of the few Black women to hold the top sports job at a university, said the only sports offered at her elementary and middle schools in Philadelphia were basketball and track and field.

“Access to sports and the kinds of sports that are offered weren’t offered in areas that were more racially diverse,” Kelly said. She added: “If I wanted to do other sports, it would require financial means, physical access in the way of being brought to an organization where I could participate.”

Kelly said that she was lucky to be introduced to swimming through the Philadelphia parks department, but that a lack of access to some sports for many young girls has contributed to “a disproportionate way that race shows up in certain sports.”

Maisha Kelly, the athletic director at Drexel University.Credit…Jeff Fusco, Drexel University

“It’s either not diverse because of socioeconomics, or it’s not diverse because of where the programming is,” Kelly added.

Kelly added that she had not thought much about Title IX before she began working in sports (she was once a Title IX coordinator at Bucknell).

That is common. In a national survey of 1,000 people of color conducted by the decision intelligence company Morning Consult on behalf of The New York Times, more than half of respondents said they weren’t at all familiar with the law. Of the 133 women of color who’d responded that they played either middle school, high school or college sports, 41 said they felt they’d benefited from Title IX.

Armstrong, who played basketball at Itawamba Community College in Mississippi and then at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, said she believes there are more opportunities for Black women today, in an era of increased empowerment and representation. Black women have dominant figures to admire across numerous sports, including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka in tennis as well as Simone Biles, the world’s most decorated gymnast.

“When I was growing up, you didn’t see that,” she said. “And we often say you can’t be what you can’t see.”

Simone Biles and Serena Williams are two of the most dominant and prominent athletes in their sports, which is a newer phenomena for black women.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Credit…Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

Most of the work still needs to be done at coaching and administrative levels, Armstrong said. In 2021, fewer than 400 Black women coached women’s college sports teams, compared with about 3,700 white women and more than 5,000 white men (and very few women coached men’s teams).

The disparities were even starker at the administrative level, and the trends persist even within sports that have the most Black athletes.

“The fight to be a head coach of a women’s basketball team for Black women has been severe,” said Davis, who added that a lack of Black women at administrative levels has a lot to do with racist stereotypes that they are not strategic thinkers. “They’re often most qualified having played and having been assistant coaches for a long time, and they are often the first fired.”

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