Betsy DeVos could be bad news for women’s sports

Title IX might not be in trouble, but its enforcement is.

Dick DeVos, center, son of Orlando Magic Chairman Rich DeVos, and his wife Betsy DeVos, right, watch from their court side seats during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015. The Magic won 104–101. CREDIT: AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
Dick DeVos, center, son of Orlando Magic Chairman Rich DeVos, and his wife Betsy DeVos, right, watch from their court side seats during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015. The Magic won 104–101. CREDIT: AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

On Tuesday afternoon, thanks to an unprecedented tiebreaker vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the next secretary of education.

There are many reasons to be concerned about Devos’s confirmation to this position. Her views on guns in schools, campus sexual assault, the privatization of schools, and anti-discrimination legislation — along with her lack of experience in government — are each disturbing in their own right.

But there’s yet another reason to fret about DeVos’s appointment: It could significantly set back the progress of female athletes in the United States.

With DeVos leading the education department and President Donald Trump leading the country, federal programs that provide athletic and health opportunities to women and girls in marginalized communities could be cut, charter and private schools could be held to different civil rights standards than public schools, and funding could be diverted from the Office of Civil Rights, leaving the OCR unable to address Title IX complaints and fully enforce the law.

“There are broad concerns about her rolling back Title IX and other civil rights laws,” Neena Chaudhry, the Director of Education and Senior Counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, told ThinkProgress. “She’s talked about reining in the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).”

Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in any federally funded education setting, is not just about sports. It also offers protections for pregnant and parenting students, women in STEM programs, and victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence. (Many of the protests against Devos have focused on her refusal to commit to upholding the Title IX guidance on campus sexual assault established in 2011.)

But according to Chaudhry, 80 percent of the Title IX complaints filed at the OCR have to do directly with the athletics portion of the legislation, which says that educational institutions that receive federal funds must provide female athletes with an equal opportunity to participate in sports, as well as equal access to scholarships and athletic facilities. So, ultimately, DeVos reining in the OCR could mean fewer opportunities for girls in sports, particularly girls of color, which would have life-long consequences for those girls.

Since Title IX was enacted, opportunities for women in sports in this country have skyrocketed. In the 1971–72 school year, girls accounted for only seven percent of all high school athletes. Today, that number is 42 percent. Women have seen similar gains in college athletics — when Title IX was enacted, there were only 30,000 girls playing sports in college; today, that number is over 214,000.

While women still don’t have equal access to sports compared to men, the United States is still seen a bastion of opportunity for female athletes in schools. This was particularly apparent at the 2016 Rio Olympics, when the United States fielded a team with 30 more women than men.

But the success of Title IX is about far more than the medal count.

“We’d be happy to provide her with more information about Title IX, about what is going on with public education. And we will keep trying to do that.”

Women who participate in sports when they are young have a lower risk of obesity, even in their 30s and 40s, and have better overall health, according to the report “Title IX at 45” by the National Coalition for Women & Girls in Education. Participating in sports is also shown to improve self esteem in girls and lessen the risk of depression, and provide an academic boost — girls who play sports are more likely to get better grades, score better on tests, and graduate from high school than their non-athletic counterparts,

This leads to more success later in life; a 2014 survey found that 94 percent of female executives played sports at some point in their life.

Statistics like this are why Dr. Deborah Antoine, the CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, spent last Wednesday going from meeting to meeting encouraging members of Congress to vote against DeVos and keep the OCR funded.

Like many others, Antoine worries that DeVos is unversed in the the details of her position and what Title IX enforcement entails.

“Her experience has been very different,” Antoine said. “We’d be happy to provide her with more information about Title IX, about what is going on with public education. And we will keep trying to do that.”

Ultimately, while Title IX is not going anywhere, the legislation is only effective if the government holds accountable the schools that don’t comply with it.

“Enforcement is key,” Antoine said.

And this is much easier said than done. Although President Barack Obama’s administration was very dedicated to enforcing Title IX, the OCR was still incredibly backlogged on investigations. And if DeVos follows through on her plans to privatize education and hold charter schools receiving federal funds to different standards than public schools, as she indicated she would in her confirmation hearing, this could mean that fewer and fewer schools are even required to follow Title IX guidelines at all.

That’s bad news. Even though 2 in 5 girls are now playing sports in school compared to just 1 in 27 when Title IX was enacted, there’s still a long way to go. Girls still have 1.2 million fewer opportunities to play sports in high school than boys, and girls are twice as likely as boys to enter sports later in life, drop out of sports earlier in life, and be inactive overall.

Opportunities are even more limited for girls and women of color. Less than two thirds of African American and Hispanic girls play sports, compared to three quarters of Caucasian girls. In schools that are 90 percent or more minority, girls receive just 39 percent of the athletic opportunities that girls in schools that are heavily white receive. Girls in immigrant families are receiving fewer athletic opportunities than their male counterparts — while 75 percent of boys from immigrant families play sports, fewer than half of the girls from these families are involved in athletic competition.

Making things even more dire is the fact that the gender equity in high school sports actually declined between 2000 and 2010. Due to funding issues, many high schools are already getting rid of athletics completely — and according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, if the current trend continues, in just three years 27 percent of public schools could have eliminated athletics altogether.

“I’m afraid about that because these girls in these neighborhoods need to play, they need to have the exposure.”

While that would be horrible for both boys and girls, it would disproportionately impact girls, considering that boys still receive the vast majority of sports opportunities in rural, urban, and suburban communities. Plus, under the Trump administration, there will likely be far less federal funding available for sports and health programs for girls, particularly in undeserved communities.

This is what most worries Natalie Randolph, the Title IX coordinator for the D.C. State Athletic Association.

“The challenges that I see are funding for programs for minorities,” she said. “I’m afraid about that because these girls in these neighborhoods need to play, they need to have the exposure.”

“We’re in the Office of Health and Wellness in the state superintendent office, and a lot of their funding is federal — for the Public Schools Act, school gardens project, the things that keep kids healthy so they have the energy to play,” she added. “That racks our brains every day at the office after the election.”

Read the full “Title IX at 45” below:

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