SN Magazine: Women still on the sidelines

Shannon Proudfoot in Ottawa
Sportsnet Magazine

“Take it seriously, or get out!” a coach barks at a small group of teenage girls running a drill on a pitch in suburban Ottawa. Not satisfied with their efforts to sprint between passes, she demonstrates how to shift body weight and change direction rapidly, then imitates the pathetic scurry of a horror movie victim as an example of what she doesn’t want to see. The girls, ranging in age from 13 to 16, all wear red shorts and navy T-shirts emblazoned with the Ottawa Fury Soccer Club logo; ponytails and bright elastic headbands are an unofficial part of the uniform. They step up their efforts, deftly redirecting passes with their knees and cleats and running between stations like they actually mean it. The early May day is cold and wants to rain, but within a few minutes, the players have all tossed aside their team-issue hoodies as patches of sweat creep across the backs of their T-shirts.

Micaela Wylie-Arbic takes it all seriously. She’s made the 75-minute trip from Cornwall, Ont., for this practice, just as she’s done at least three times a week for the past two seasons. It’s a lot of long hours on the highway, but the 16-year-old knows the training and scouting she gets here will carry her closer to her dreams. Over the past seven years, the Fury have churned out at least 80 graduates — 55 of them female — who’ve earned athletic scholarships to U.S. schools. Those women are among millions who got a chance to play the sports that have defined their lives because of a 40-year-old piece of American legislation. Title IX, as it’s known, was created in an effort to level the playing field for girls and women in all aspects of education. It trashed discriminatory policies that today would seem unimaginable, including admission forms that flatly stated women needed higher marks to get in, and sent women flooding into classrooms and workplaces — thanks to Title IX, women now make up almost half of medical and law school enrolment. It has been called the most important law for women in the U.S. since they won the right to vote in the 1920s.

More than anything else, Title IX has become synonymous with athletics, and the 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking law has prompted an avalanche of maudlin stories spotlighting enormous leaps in progress and the heroines who stampeded into arenas and onto podiums across the U.S. and around the world. This is not one of those stories. There’s no question it’s a different world for girls and women in sports today compared to four decades ago, and it would be a mistake not to celebrate the immense ground that’s been covered and the trailblazers who got there. But there’s also no doubt girls and women still live in a separate world from boys and men when it comes to sports, and it would be an even bigger mistake to politely accept that this is as good as it’s going to get, thanks very much. “We have gone from absolutely horrid to very bad,” says Bernice Sandler, the “godmother” of Title IX. She chuckles dryly and adds, “We still have a long way to go.”

The roots of Title IX were planted in 1969, when Sandler was teaching part-time at the University of Maryland. She was passed over for half a dozen openings in her department — counselling and personnel services — and a male friend on the faculty offered a piece of advice that would make a pretty fantastic marketing slogan: “You come on too strong for a woman.” Sandler started fighting for women’s rights in education and eventually teamed up with Edith Green, a Democratic congresswoman. As their bill took shape, few college bigwigs bothered to give it more than a passing glance. “That is the biggest break we could have had,” says Sandler, now a senior scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute in Washington, DC. “Title IX passed because no one was watching.” On June 23, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed the following into law: “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.”

Sportsnet image

Bernice Sandler. (Photo: Emilio Serge Archive)

The legislation didn’t mention athletics at all, but sports became its bloodiest battleground, both for practical reasons — the need for separate teams and facilities for women and the budgets to pay for them — and symbolic ones. “This is pure masculinity in terms of, ‘This is our stuff and what do you mean these women want to play our games?'” says Sandler.

The resistance to Title IX once it passed was loud and endless, and one of the big arguments was that females simply weren’t built for or interested in sports. “Oh, really?” they said. “Watch this.” When the law was passed, there were 294,000 girls and 3.7 million boys playing sports in high school. By 1978-79, 1.9 million girls were playing, while boys’ participation had risen only slightly; last year, there were 4.5 million male and 3.2 million female jocks in American high schools. At the college level, there were 170,384 men and 29,977 women playing sports when Title IX passed, compared to 256,344 male and 193,232 female athletes across all three NCAA divisions in 2010-11. “If you build it, they will come” isn’t just for Ray Kinsella and his cornfield.

Once regulations laid out exactly how Title IX would work, one of the central ideas in athletics was that opportunities should fall roughly in line with enrolment. Women now make up about 58 percent of undergraduates but get just 43 percent of roster spots and 46 percent of Div. I scholarship money. Researchers at the University of Toronto found much the same in this country: For every 100 men in Canadian universities, there are 2.9 chances to play a sport; for every 100 women, there are just 1.8 chances. Canadian Interuniversity Sport data shows that an identical proportion — 40 percent-of male and female athletes received scholarships last year, but men got $6.7 million and the women just $4.8 million. Given enrolment, there should be more female than male athletes and they should be raking in more scholarship money, but it’s not even 50:50 yet.

Now, the dark irony: As girls’ and women’s sports transformed from a cute diversion into a serious pursuit, it became a man’s job to coach them. In 1972, more than 90 percent of women’s teams in the U.S. were coached by women; six years later, that had dropped to 58 percent. Today, women coach just 43 percent of women’s teams and about two percent of men’s teams. Similarly, in Canada, the U of T study found women occupy “disturbingly few” leadership positions, representing just 17 percent of athletic directors and 19 percent of head coaches. “The athletic directors I talk to would very much like to be hiring women coaches, but they get to the point where there’s not even women in the pool,” says Beth Ali, athletic director at U of T. “We have a very big problem in not developing female coaches in this country.”

Title IX regulations also demand an equal experience for men and women in terms of coaching, equipment, game and practice times, locker rooms and publicity once they are on a team, but many schools fall short in these departments, too. Parents at Castle Rock High School in Washington state filed a complaint this year because the girls’ soccer team played on an unlit field and often had to cut games short when darkness fell — meanwhile, a fully lit stadium was sitting unused nearby, reserved for the boys’ football team. Adrian College in Michigan came under fire in 2008 when it built a gleaming new multi-sport stadium in which the men’s locker rooms had lounge furniture and plasma TVs — and there were no women’s locker rooms at all. A spokesman insisted it was an “oversight.”

Title IX compliance is judged according to a “three-part test,” which should be easy to pass. A school only has to show one of the following: that athletic opportunities for males and females are roughly in line with enrolment; that the school is adding more chances for females to play sports; or that the interests of all students have been covered. “A normal split is roughly 60:40-boys get 60 percent and girls get 40 percent of the opportunities,” says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a lawyer who specializes in Title IX cases and senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation. Some schools seem genuinely oblivious when they screw up (worrying in itself, 40 years in) — a 2010 study involving 1,100 college coaches found that most got a failing grade in knowledge of the most basic tenets of the legislation, and 83 percent said they’d received no information on Title IX in their training. Twelve percent worried they’d be fired if they brought up Title IX problems. Other schools seem happy to break the rules until — or unless — they get caught.

There’s still simmering resentment and a pervasive notion that men have paid the price for women’s gains. Football is the behemoth of most athletic departments, with 100-player rosters and programs that suck up a large swath of the budget. Some schools will take a scalpel to other sports in pursuit of gridiron glory, then blame Title IX. (Other schools have slashed programs in a genuine effort to bring ratios in line.) The New York Times also found many colleges were cooking the books by counting male practice — players as females and tallying the same female athletes multiple times — some of whom didn’t even know they were supposedly on the team. The ultimate punishment for an institution that flouts Title IX is to have its federal funding yanked. That has never happened.

The playing field is more uneven after graduation. The 10-year-old boy firing pucks at his garage door is dreaming against long odds when he imagines himself flying across an NHL rink one day, but at least it’s possible. “I grew up wanting to be drafted to the NHL and to play with Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky,” says defenceman Tessa Bonhomme, 26. “The reality of the story is that it was never going to happen.” Her focus shifted when she was in her early teens and women’s hockey was added to the Olympics. In 2010, at age 24, Bonhomme helped Team Canada capture a gold medal on home soil in 2010. Now she plays with the Toronto Furies of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, where one of the big differences from the NHL is the day jobs — the world’s best female hockey players don’t yet have a league that pays them to play full-time. “We still have to convince the sports or entertainment community that we are worth watching, that we do have a lot of skill,” says Bonhomme.

The gender gap in dollars is staggering across sports. This year’s PGA Tour will pay out $285.5 million in prize money, while the LPGA tour offers $47 million. The minimum NBA salary is currently $473,604 and the highest-paid player — Kobe Bryant — takes home $25 million; in the WNBA, the minimum is $36,570 and players top out at $105,500. Manchester City has the deepest pockets in the English Premier League, with an average player salary of $7.4 million, or $142,380 a week. In contrast, Christina Julien, an Ottawa Fury graduate who plays in the Swedish pro league — one of the best in the world — says many of her teammates have to work day jobs to make a living.

Salaries are intertwined with the size of the audience, of course, but it looks like women don’t even have a chance: American researchers who tracked television coverage over the past 20 years found that in 2009, men’s sports gobbled up 96.3 percent of airtime, while women’s sports got just 1.6 percent of the coverage (2.1 percent was devoted to miscellaneous stories, like a 5,000-calorie burger served at a minor-league ballpark). A female basketball player might get a brief moment in the spotlight during the Div. I basketball championships, says Kristine Newhall, a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa and co-founder of the Title IX Blog. “I guess I’m a little bit cynical, because I think, ‘This is the most media attention they’re ever going to get,'” she says. “They’ll get resurrected this summer when they go to the Olympics and then they’ll fade away again.”

Sportsnet image

Billie Jean King. (Photo: Getty Images)

Many argue that women’s sports are simply not tough or fast enough to capture an audience. But that doesn’t explain the success of women’s tennis. In 1970, fed up with contending for minuscule purses at men’s tournaments, Billie Jean King and eight other female players defied the United States Lawn Tennis Association and started their own tour. Tobacco giant Philip Morris provided sponsorship money and marketing savvy to promote the fledgling Virginia Slims Circuit, which offered a purse of nearly $310,000 in 1971. The USLTA started a rival tour, and when King threatened to boycott the U.S. Open unless the purses were evened out, the Open started offering equal prize money. In 1973, King helped merge the women’s tours to create the Women’s Tennis Association. The organization signed its first television contract the next year, and by 1976, women’s tennis had built a big enough following that Colgate signed a multi-year sponsorship deal. By 2007, men’s and women’s purses were equal in all four Grand Slam events. Still, King is best known for beating Bobby Riggs, 25 years her senior, in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes. “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” she said later. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”

It was just a few years later that Hogshead-Makar would become a Title IX success story. In the mid-’70s, when she was 14 years old, she was the top-ranked female swimmer in the world. She remembers telling a reporter her big goal was the 1980 Olympics, when she’d be 18 and in peak physical condition — after that, her career would be over. It never occurred to one of the fastest human beings in a pool that she could keep swimming after high school. Maybe it was something about women’s bodies that limited their athletic careers, but all Hogshead-Makar knew was that they just didn’t swim in college. Then suddenly, they did. It took until 1979 to implement the guidelines on exactly how Title IX would work, and by the time she was ready to start college the following year, universities were opening their swim departments to women and tripping over each other to recruit her. (Duke won out.) If Title IX had been set in motion just a year or two later, “My life would not have been my life,” she says. The U.S. led the 1980 Moscow Olympics boycott, so Hogshead-Makar didn’t get her chance until 1984 in Los Angeles, where she won three gold medals and a silver.

She believes Title IX has been a “huge, unequivocal success,” not just for her but for everyone: Women have flooded into worlds where they used to be forbidden, and boys and men haven’t lost any ground in the process. But after 40 years, the dreams and expectations within reach of female athletes are still narrower than those of the boys who play on the same fields. Dominic Oliveri, technical director of the Ottawa Fury’s girls’ youth academy, says although women’s soccer has exploded in the past 15 years, after college, there are still vastly more opportunities for men to play pro than for women. That’s something they have to prepare their girls for. “We always tell our players to use soccer as a vehicle to do something you wouldn’t have otherwise done,” he says, mentioning free education as an example. “Our job here is to show them what the reality is.”

Julien is one of the Fury’s biggest success stories. Aside from playing for Jitex BK in the top-tier Damallsvenskan league, the 24-year-old is a member of the Canadian national team. She’ll find out in July if she’s headed to London — a prospect that leaves her literally speechless with joy. With the extra funding she gets as a carded athlete, she can devote herself full-time to her game. “I always dreamed of playing professionally — that was the ultimate goal even when I was a kid — but I really didn’t know what it meant,” Julien says. “I just said it because I wanted to do what I loved for the rest of my life.” She played competitive hockey until the end of high school, when she gave it up for soccer (it was tough to see the puck through the tears in that last game), and like Bonhomme, she grew up idolizing the male athletes — Gretzky, Steve Yzerman — who got all the exposure. Today, Lionel Messi is her soccer hero.

Wylie-Arbic, on the other hand, has grown up idolizing Julien. Now captain of the girls’ under-16 team, she knew about the Fury program because of the hometown star who lived in nearby Williamstown, Ont. Polite and sheepishly smiley, Wylie-Arbic says she’s already talked to a couple of U.S. schools and would ideally like a spot on the national team someday. A self-made YouTube highlight video shows her charging across the pitch and gleefully scoring goals on a snow-covered field. Wylie-Arbic knows how much things have changed for female athletes, and she’s grateful. But she also says it would be “awesome” to play Major League Soccer, and that door just isn’t open. Women’s Professional Soccer, the best option for women to play pro in North America, folded in May. “It’s unfair because they are offered a lot more opportunity and it seems they’re publicized more for what they do,” says Wylie-Arbic of the game’s male stars.

For Hogshead-Makar, fighting for the legislation that changed her life is a full-time job. She believes lawyers and activists have taken the 40-year-old legislation as far as it can go — the next wave of change will have to come from coaches, athletes and parents demanding better in every field and gym. It will be girls like Wylie-Arbic and her teammates — a little less grateful, maybe, a little more indignant — who will need to fight to fulfill the full breadth of what Title IX promised when it was created. “I ask young people about Title IX and get a lot of ‘What’s that?'” King told Sportsnet magazine. “How are you going to shape the future if you don’t know the past?”

Back on the soccer field in Ottawa, the players congregate at the centre of the pitch for one final strategy session. Boys’ teams have been gathering along the sidelines as the girls’ training time winds down, and now they swarm onto the field, jostling and yelling at each other while they go through their warm-ups. The girls, focused on their coaches, pay no attention to the noisy herd behind them. One coach offers her players a final lesson about wringing every last drop out of their bodies. “If you want to play the higher levels, you can’t settle and say, ‘Yeah, that’s good enough,'” she says. She sweeps one hand high above their heads, karate-chopping the air for emphasis. “You’ve gotta say, ‘Screw you, I wanna be up here!'”

Presidents and VIPs introducing the most powerful women in sports

It’s the 40th anniversary of Title IX, and we’re a long way from gender equity in sports. At the college level, female athletes and coaches are under-represented and enjoy nowhere near the same access to facilities, equipment or publicity that men do. At the pro level… well, suffice it to say, the landscape is dim, if not dismal. But as much as sports may still be a man’s world, it ain’t nothing, as James Brown once sang, without women. At least not anymore. Women are finally starting to take their place, if not on the field or court, then in the media or the boardroom, and have a major hand in shaping the way sports are seen and played.

Sarah Robb O’Hagan

President of Gatorade and Global Sports Nutrition Group of PepsiCo

At the helm of the world’s largest and most recognized sports drink company, O’Hagan oversees an operation that earns more than $1 billion a year and sponsors a stable of superstar athletes, from Hope Solo to Usain Bolt.

Kim Ng

Senior VP for Baseball Operations for MLB

Ng interviewed for the Dodgers’ vacant GM job in 2008 before settling into her current position, where she handles international baseball operations and internal negotiations on behalf of the commissioner’s office.

Molly Solomon

Executive Producer of the Golf Channel

Solomon parlayed her role as coordinating producer for the Olympics on NBC (for which she won nine Emmys) to her new gig as executive producer of the Golf Channel, becoming the first woman to head a national sports network.

Serena Williams & Venus Willams

Professional Tennis Players

The sisters have been the public face of their sport for more than a decade (Serena was the world’s most Googled athlete in 2011) and have both held the WTA’s No. 1 ranking in singles and doubles.

Lesa France Kennedy

Chief Executive of International Speedway Corp.

The daughter of NASCAR founder Bill France Jr., Kennedy is in charge of the company that owns and operates 12 of NASCAR’s biggest tracks, including Daytona, Talladega, and Darlington.

Stacey Allaster

Chairman and CEO of the WTA

Purses for all four Grand Slam events in tennis were evened out in 2007, under the watch of Toronto-born Allaster. As CEO, she has helped to close more than $75 million in sponsorship deals and to expand the tour to China.

Erin Andrews

ESPN sportscaster

The best-known American female sports broadcaster, Andrews helped make ESPN’s College GameDay one of the network’s most watched shows. She currently has more than 1.3 million Twitter followers.

Heidi Ueberroth

President of NBA International

With games televised in 215 countries in 47 languages, no North American sports league has done a better job of reaching global markets than the NBA. Ueberroth, the brains behind NBA China, is a big reason why.

Kathryn Carter

President of Soccer United Marketing, the business arm of MLS

As president of Soccer United Marketing, Carter is responsible for branding, promotion, and broadcasting for the United States Soccer Federation, all MLS teams, as well as the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.