“IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME” or, A Real Olympic Legacy By Felicity Hawksley, Twitter: @thesportscarton, Personal Blog: http://stackpolesspin.wordpress.com/
The marginally incorrect “if you build it, they will come” is a misquote from the film ‘Field of Dreams’ – an epic about building a stadium and waiting for some players to turn up. It’s a pithy phrase that could have been whispered to American politician Patsy Mink when she pushed Congress to pass Title IX – a law that made equality a reality. That would have been unbearably cheesy, but it stands that Title IX was built, and they came. This amendment to the higher education bill still today prohibits gender discrimination by federally funded institutions and is undoubtedly the reason why in America, women were winning more medals than men (29 of the nation’s 46 gold medals and 58 of 104 medals overall). So what role did Title IX play in this extraordinary set of statistics? Take a look at these figures: In the US, nearly 3 million girls play high school sports, compared to around 300,000 in 1971-2, just prior to the law’s passing. At college level, participation is at around 150,000, compared to the 1972 number of 30,000. With Title IX, Patsy Mink seriously rolled out the pitch. She levelled the playing field.
Turn to the UK, and the picture is somewhat different. At the age of seven, 40% of girls will say they are not sporty. It’s not confined to the playground either, with 40% of girls dropping out of all sporting activity by the time they are 18. Get a little bit older, and you’ll find that men between 18 and 24 are twice as likely to participate in sport as women. The figures get worse. Even though the number of women’s football teams has risen from 80 to 8,500 in the past ten years, four elite women’s teams were slashed a couple of years back – Manchester United, Charlton Athletic, Bristol City and Sunderland. Bearing in mind these teams run on an annual budget comparable to a Premier League player’s weekly wage packet, this is about as close to a crisis as it gets. Demand, but lagging provision; participation pitted against plummeting self esteem.
Sue Tibballs, CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation says that “[i]n terms of gender equality, sport has simply been left behind…the entire sector is completely ossified.” Tellingly she adds “[w]e know from our research that the biggest barriers are not practical; they’re psychological and social”. Prominent athletes including Kelly Holmes have voiced their fears over a generation of women addicted to gym passes and scarfing carrots, hooked on the idea of thin-ness above fitness as a fast ticket to WAGdom.
Don’t get me wrong, Title IX isn’t perfect. The UK and US still share basic problems – such as the unhealthy obsession with celebrity and its attendant dose of body dysmorphia, as well as massive obesity problems. But Title IX isn’t really about curing health problems; it’s more about just getting equality on the books. The usually criminally insane and financially reckless Nixon administration realised briefly funding parity was a basic requirement. They treated the cause and not the symptom. Congress and the judiciary protected the legislation against a decade of repeated salvos and the 2% of scholarships that went to women in 1971 rocketed to around 41% – still not perfect, but a whole world better. So does Britain need its own Title IX? The simple answer is ‘YES!’
A change to government funding laws and the distribution of monies would be a real Olympic legacy. Never mind the stadiums and the inspiring coverage. Facilities will age, admiration will wane. A wholesale shift in approach, a real shock and awe equality law would lay the foundations for a new way of thinking about women’s sport, as well as send a message to girls and women that their interest is valued and protected. Surely the government could get on board with a scheme that doesn’t even require them to spend anything, but simply to divide by two?
So here’s some persuasive stuff that every girl should carry in her back pocket:
1. The current gender equality law is awful: If you’re a girl, and you have a problem with sports funding at your university, say, then you have to read the Gender Equality Duty. Maybe the first challenge is knowing about it, but hey, let’s pretend we’re all legal eagles. This lumpen piece of legislation rules that the onus is on public bodies to be proactive about equality. They have to promote opportunities in a “relevant” way. I challenge you to come up with a looser term than “relevant”. It’s open to any kind of statutory or judicial interpretation. The point is, if you don’t know about this law, you’re screwed. Say you do make a fuss; this gold plated piece of waffle can only be enforced by a legal challenge. But fear not, brave warrior, you can go online and fill in a template letter to the Equalities Commission. Enjoy watching the boys play, whilst you wait for a meaningful reply. If you’re lucky enough to persuade them of your interpretation of the irrelevance of the funding discrimination at your institution, you get to make your appearance in court. Advance to ‘Go’, collect two hundred pounds. Then if you win in court, the public body gets issued with a ‘compliance notice’. It’s not enforced, and it’s open to interpretation. But all of this is almost beside the point. The Gender Equality Duty was supposed to phase responsibilities in over three years. It’s been five now. It didn’t work. 2. Women’s low participation levels reflect lack of opportunity, not lack of interest. Just because more men express interest in sport, doesn’t mean they should get all the funding. A storming paper on ensuring equality of opportunity points out that interest-based tests for allocation of funding or participation opportunities are redundant when you’re testing a sample of people who’ve had a historical lack of opportunities to participate in sports. “Interest evolves as a function of opportunity and experience”. Simply – because women haven’t had the same facilities or opportunities, they can’t be tested for how much interest they have in sports.
3. Civil rights are not a popularity contest. Even if sports were found to be more popular with men, it doesn’t mean that women shouldn’t get the same level of funding. Fundamental rights should not be subject to interest tests. History has shown repeatedly that when you give women more opportunity, they’ll take it – I’m talking employment, education and the like, not just free fudge samples and sachets of shampoo. It would be worrying if our notion of civil rights was based on magic formula of usage or interest.
4. Sex discrimination is not OK, just because there’s money involved. A lot of people battered Title IX, attempting to exempt revenue producing sports, like college football, fro
m the remit of the law. They argued that these big-name, big-buck sports should be allowed to cream off the majority of the funding because they brought in the moolah. The implication here, make no mistake, is that sex discrimination is acceptable when there’s a profit to be made. Just no.
5. We do NOT have a chicken/egg situation on our hands. The sports minister who said that media coverage lies at the root of levelling the pitch is absolutely off the mark. You don’t wait outside the house of a regular person, taking photos, in the hope that one day they might become a celebrity. Give the girls some dollar, and watch them become the players, the coaches, the programme controllers, the sportswriters. The media doesn’t like dead air. It won’t go to women’s sport until it’s a bigger part of everyday life, until it develops more and until, predictably, there’s more money in it.
In 1995, Nike ran a television advert that featured only women. The transcript runs like this: “If you let me play, if you let me play sports
I will like myself more; I will have more self-confidence If you let me play sports If you let me play, I will be 60 percent less likely to get breast cancer; I will suffer less depression. If you let me play sports I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me. If you let me play, I will be less likely to get pregnant before I want to. I will learn what it means to be strong. If you let me play…”