Where will women’s sports coverage be tomorrow?
On April 13, 2007, Harvard’s School of Law and Gender hosted a conference entitled, “Changing Social Norms? Title IX and Legal Activism.” On the opposite coast, just two weeks later, Stanford hosted “Title IX Today, Title IX Tomorrow.” These conferences were all planned months in advance, of course—but on April 5, 2007, when Don Imus’s now-infamous comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team splattered across WFAN’s airwaves and then across the national consciousness, it just seemed to highlight the ongoing need for intelligent conversation about Title IX’s legacy and the work that still remains to be done. Imus’s words demonstrated clearly how our culture still fails in many ways to provide equal access and equal respect to women—and to female athletes in particular.
Stanford’s program included “discussion of how to assess gender equity in college athletics … and how to promote change in athletic contexts beyond the intercollegiate setting.” Harvard’s conference promised to “examine how effective Title IX has been as a legal reform effort to change social and gender norms [by examining] Title IX’s uses in combating sexual harassment and sexual assault at schools and … Title IX’s effects on athletics programs and gender equity in sports.”
This dual focus of the Harvard conference highlights something important. Title IX is best known for its use in allowing women athletes greater access to sports in educational institutions. However, it’s also been used as a legal basis for combating sexual harassment and assault. Well, of course. Title IX, as part of the Educational Amendments of 1972, states in opening: “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 Assistance.” Clearly, sexual harassment and assault are just as much instances of gender-based discrimination as is a school’s failure to offer women, along with men, a chance to compete in sports.
What really interests me, though, is how those two different applications of Title IX—protection from harassment AND equal access to sports in school—come together. And Don Imus, in his obliviousness or cruelty, provided an interesting example. His insult to the college basketball players (calling them “nappy-headed hos”) is clearly based on their gender and race. Calling these scholars and athletes whores for no reason but that they are women is sexual discrimination, clearly. But I am going to make a case that his comments actually constitute harassment, which ultimately contributes to excluding women from participation in the pro sport workplace. Tough, right? I mean, Imus is not part of the educational or workplace environment, and that’s where sexual harassment is expressly prohibited by law. Or is he?
Consider employment opportunities for college athletes striving to become professionals. Obviously, once outside the Title IX-protected enclosure of educational institutions, the law no longer guarantees equal access for women to play the sports they love. The market takes over. It all depends on sponsorship, and a big part of sponsorship depends on the media. (See Scott Saifer’s article for an excellent general discussion of the forces at play.) In short, if the media ignore women’s sports, or mock the athletes, what incentive do sponsors have to support female teams? Without sponsorship, fewer women will play—and those who do, will do it for less money.
Therefore, since the media are in some way responsible for how well sports are supported financially by sponsors, then I would argue that the media in fact are part of the larger “workplace” of the athletes. If you buy this argument, then Don Imus is actually guilty of sexual harassment: his unfairly disparaging comments on the basis of sex (and race) ultimately reduce the workplace opportunities for those women by contributing to a media culture that devalues their efforts.
Therefore, I believe these two academic conferences on Title IX—thirty-five years after equal protection was written into law for women at educational institutions—were extremely timely, as was Imus’s “idiot comment.” In fact, perhaps we ought to be grateful to the idiot for the timely lesson he provided. Sexism is still alive and well in the media as well as society at large, and this sexism is still limiting women’s opportunities to compete in athletic contexts beyond educational institutions, where Title IX has made significant progress. Yes, Title IX does still have a role in “changing social norms.” Yes, those norms must be changed throughout society, and not just in schools. And perhaps, if we are more aggressive in holding the media responsible for their role in representing women athletes unfairly by ignoring or slandering them, Title IX will eventually hit prime time.
Illustration courtesy of Jeff Parker, Florida Today