Girls Do Want to Play Sports, and Obama Administration Clarifies How to Assess Their Interests

December 8, 2010
Education Policy
Guest Post

By Julie Murray, Margaret Fund Fellow, National Women's Law Center
Around the country today, bloggers are clacking at their keyboards, writing about the impact that playing sports had on their lives. Their collective efforts are part of the Blog to Rally for Girls' Sports Day, organized by the National Women's Law Center.

As the stories add up, they form a powerful narrative about the life of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs, including athletics. Nearly all of us now know women and girls who had the chance to play sports and relished it. And we know that when asked, women often credit the chance to compete with shaping their physical, social, and even professional development.

Nevertheless, many people still routinely argue that girls just don't want to play sports, so schools shouldn't be penalized for athletic programs in which they receive fewer opportunities to play than boys. The National Women's Law Center heard this argument repeatedly just last month when it filed administrative complaints with the U.S. Department of Education against 12 school districts around the country for violations of Title IX's requirement to offer equal athletic opportunities to high school girls and boys.

The problem with this argument is twofold. First, as the many blogger voices make clear, and as anyone who's known a female athlete can attest, many girls do want to play sports when given the opportunity. Women and girls have come out for teams in droves since Title IX was passed, and they have never left the field.

Second, the claim that "girls don't want to play sports" is exactly the kind of stereotype that Title IX was enacted to combat, and the law is flexible enough to accommodate any particular situation where a school's program is fully satisfying girls' interests even if girls receive fewer opportunities than boys. As the Obama administration reiterated in an April 2010 policy guidance document, a school can show that it is in compliance with Title IX's participation test by demonstrating that it meets any one of the law's three independent "prongs": (1) the percentages of male and female athletes are about the same as the percentages of male and female students enrolled at the school, (2) the school has a history and continuing practice of expanding athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex, which is almost always females, or (3) the school is fully and effectively meeting its female students' interests and abilities to participate in sports.

The catch for schools using prong three to show compliance is that it's not enough to rely on generalizations about girls' propensity for sports. Instead, if schools plan to rely on prong three, they must demonstrate they they've asked girls about their interests and abilities. The Obama administration's recent guidance makes clear that schools can't simply rest on a student body survey of athletic interests without regard to response rate, the content of the survey, and how often the survey is conducted. Schools must look to other sources of information to gauge female students' interests in sports as well. So, if a school is sitting on a stack of girls' requests to create new teams, slashing existing opportunities for female athletes, or turning its back on thriving girls' intramural or club teams, the school cannot claim compliance under prong three.

Simply saying that girls don't want to play sports isn't true now, and it never was. The Obama administration's recent guidance is a welcome clarification about how to assess girls' interests.