This June marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark law banning sex discrimination in education. Passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX ushered in an era of gender equity in schools that aimed to level the playing field for women, be it in academics or athletics.
Yet despite the law's broad impact, misconceptions persist about how it’s applied and enforced, what protections it affords women, and whether, five decades later, it's unfair to men – especially with regards to sports.
Below, USA TODAY has tackled those misconceptions by answering some of the most common questions about Title IX and its role in college athletics.
What is Title IX in simple terms?
The text of Title IX is just 37 words, but it packs a punch: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
In effect, it means that schools receiving federal funds cannot discriminate based on sex. Since almost all public and private schools – from kindergarten to medical schools – receive some money from the government, the law covers millions of students, employees and others.
Who enforces Title IX?
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is in charge of enforcement. Almost all its enforcement work involves investigating complaints it receives, though it can proactively launch compliance reviews that are generally more involved and lengthy.
What punishment do schools face for not following Title IX?
OCR’s only sanction is to revoke all federal funding, a step it has never taken in 50 years. Instead, it requires that non-compliant schools sign resolution agreements outlining the changes needed to reach compliance by a certain date and allowing OCR to monitor the school during that time.
Was Title IX created for sports?
No, and neither was its impact on sports foreseen. The law initially was meant to address discrimination that women faced in graduate and law schools.
How did athletics get included?
Amid immediate pushback from athletic administrators and coaches who wanted exemptions from the law, Congress and what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare – or HEW – made it clear it indeed applied equally to athletics. In the years after it passed, Congress rejected several proposed amendments that would have exempted athletics broadly, or revenue-producing sports specifically.
How is athletics compliance with Title IX assessed?
In 1979, HEW released what is commonly known as the three-prong test that lets athletic departments show compliance with the law in any one of these ways:
(1) Participation opportunities for men and women is substantially proportionate to their respective enrollments; or
(2) The institution has a history and continuing practice of expanding participation opportunities responsive to the developing interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex; or
(3) The institution is fully and effectively accommodating the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex.
In addition to the three-part test, athletic departments are assessed on awarding of athletic financial assistance as well as a series of treatment categories known as the “laundry list” of 11 items that include equipment and supplies, travel, facilities, recruiting and publicity, among others.
So everything has to be equal, like roster spots and money spent?
Not exactly. When the Office for Civil Rights investigates a school, it’s trying to determine whether discrimination is the cause for disparity. So, for instance, it acknowledges that uniforms and equipment cost more in football than they would for women’s volleyball. But if the teams have similar quality equipment, then the school would likely be in compliance. This assessment allows for different spending based on demands of each sport.
How big of an impact has it had on women’s sports since 1972?
A massive one. At the high school level, girls’ athletic participation has grown from 294,000 in 1972 to more than 3.4 million in 2018-19, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Collegiately, fewer than 30,000 women competed before Title IX compared to more than 219,000 women in 2020-21.
Where does football fit in all this?
There have been repeated calls over the decades to exempt football programs from Title IX because the triple-digit rosters and large expenditures of these teams have no female equivalent. Athletic departments have historically prioritized football in treatment and allocation of resources. That can lead to Title IX problems for women, though it often comes at a cost to other men’s teams as well.
Does Title IX require schools to cut men's sports?
No, according to federal courts that have repeatedly affirmed the law - including in cases where it was challenged by those who said it reduced opportunities for men. In a direct challenge to the law brought by wrestling coaches in 2002, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found several factors affect "athletic program decision-making" beyond Title IX, including competitive level, availability of athletes and spectator interests.
Despite that, athletic administrators and university presidents often blame Title IX when cutting non-revenue men’s programs, but the U.S. Department of Education says schools needn’t cut men’s opportunities to improve their numbers for women. Women’s sports advocates argue that some men’s teams suffer along with women when athletic departments devote the largest piece of the pie to one or two sports – most commonly, football and men’s basketball.
My school has a football team and almost 60% of the students are now women. We’ll never be able to comply, right?
By proportionality, it will be tough. Typically, schools with football teams offer significantly more opportunities to men overall. If a school has 60% female enrollment, then to reach substantial proportionality, its athletic opportunities for women should be about 60%, too. Depending on which women’s sports a school already offers, it might need to add many new women’s teams to close the gender gap. If the school already prioritizes opportunities for men, and specifically football players, it's more likely to try to comply with one of the other prongs.
If women's teams make less money than the men's teams, why should they get equal resources?
For Title IX purposes, generating revenue does not matter. In the eyes of the law, no athlete or team should face discrimination based on sex just because there’s no profit.
The education department recognizes that the size and popularity of some sports justifies increased spending – think crowd control and concessions for 100,000 fans attending a football game vs. 5,000 fans at a softball game.
But it would raise compliance issues if the football team got new uniforms and equipment every year because it made money while the softball team got them every decade.
What’s the difference between Title IX and NCAA rules?
Title IX is a federal law that applies to most schools, including ones not in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA has its own gender equity initiatives, but it is a membership organization not bound by Title IX since it does not receive federal funding itself (even though its member schools do).
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Title IX misconceptions: Q&A on law's impact, role in college sports