In the year 1998, Tracy Green and her teammates on the Florida team with the NCAA Women’s Tennis Championships trophy after defeating Duke in five of her six games. Green, who had been awarded a full scholarship to Florida, smiled proudly and kindly.
“I knew I was a Title IX beneficiary, because of history,” Green, 43, said in an interview, acknowledging the opportunities the federal law has created for women and girls in sports since it was passed in 1972.
But Green also knew that — a black woman on a team full of white women — she represented a small number of athletes.
It hasn’t changed much,” said Green, now a women’s tennis coach at Harvard University. “On the tennis teams, you won’t find more than one black player,” she added.
Despite all the progress that has been made with Title IX, many who study gender equality in sports argue that it does not benefit women of all races. They noted that white women are the law’s primary beneficiaries, because the law’s framing on gender equality—without mentioning the intersection of gender, race, and income—ignores the important issues faced by many black female athletes, coaches, and administrations.
“It’s kind of good news and bad news when you think about Title IX,” said Ketra Armstrong, professor of sports management and director of diversity, equality and inclusion at Michigan. She added, “We talk about gender equality, but if you look at the numbers, we see that it’s white women who are breaking barriers, and rising into these leadership roles to a much greater extent than black women, and that’s because we’re more comfortable talking about gender.”
Some sports experts believe Title IX cannot resolve racial disparities in athletics.
“Title IX is a strictly gender candidate. It’s hard to ask Act IX to solve a gap based on race, family income or any other category,” said Tom Farrey, director of the Aspen Institute, which conducts research on youth and school sports in the United States. He added, “The question is do we need additional policies to address these loopholes, and I’d argue yes.”
Others, such as Armstrong, argue that issues of race and gender are interconnected, and that Title IX’s conversations on gender are incomplete without including race because “it is often the essence of their race that defines them.” She said she feels that people see her blackness first, not her gender, when she walks into a room.
“It has improved opportunities for black girls and women, and that shouldn’t be diminished,” she said. “But let us not be deceived into thinking we have arrived, for we have not. There are still unfulfilled promises of Title IX.”
according to Demographics database of the National University Sports AuthorityWhite women made up the largest proportion of female athletes in all three departments at 68% for the 2020-21 school year. Black women were 11 percent, and most concentrated in two sports: basketball, where they represented 30 percent of sports, and indoor and outdoor track and field (20 percent). Black women were barely represented in most other sports—5 percent or less in softball, tennis, soccer, golf, and swimming.
“It’s hard to break into those sports because of these stereotypical notions of what black girls play in sports,” said Princess Rose Davis, an assistant professor at Penn State who focuses on black women in sports.
The split in college athletics aligns with similar trends in youth sports.
March study by National Center for Women’s Law It found a large split in athletic opportunities among high schools that were largely white, with a student body of at least 90 percent white, or largely non-white, and at least 90 percent non-white. The study found that schools with a higher population density had twice as many athletic opportunities as non-white schools. For girls in largely non-white schools, the study said, there were significantly fewer seats on teams than for girls in predominantly white schools.
The study said that some gaps were a “strong indicator of non-compliance with Article IX,” and that sports such as volleyball and soccer, with less participation by non-white athletes, were more likely to find opportunities to play in college.
In college sports, track and field and basketball are becoming more accessible and traditional for black girls.
Caroline Beck, who coached with college coaching and women’s professional basketball from 1993 to 2018, remembered watching C. Vivian Stringer coaching women’s basketball in the late 1980s. Stringer, a black woman, showed Beck what was possible.
“All eyes were on her from the black community because she was pretty much the only one who was rehearsing for that national stage,” she said.
Beck, who comes from a predominantly white community in Jefferson City, Tennessee, had access to a range of sports when she was younger — including basketball and swimming. She chose basketball in part because she had the talent and was one of the tallest kids in her school, and also because it was the only sport she was associated with.
Beck played for Vanderbilt on a full scholarship and landed her first coaching job as an assistant to Pat Summit, the influential Tennessee women’s basketball coach who won eight NCAA championships. As Purdue’s head coach in 1998, Beck became the first African-American woman to win a national title.
“Without Title IX,” said Beck, “I would not have had the opportunity, not only to play sports, but also to go to university for a free education, to be able to enter the coaching profession.”
Access and cost remain huge barriers to entry for girls of color. A surge in girls’ secondary school participation rates 3.4 million in 2019 from 1.85 million in 1978-1979 – Girls who live in school districts that have the resources to offer more teams and sporting opportunities have helped significantly. But girls of color, even from middle-class or wealthier families, often grow up in school districts with fewer opportunities.
The only sports offered at her elementary and middle school in Philadelphia are basketball and athletics, said Maisha Kelly, 44, the athletic director at Drexel and one of the few black women to hold the highest athletic position at a university.
“Access to sports and the types of sports offered were not available in the most ethnically diverse areas,” Kelly said. “If I wanted to play other sports, it would require financial means, physical access in my way of being to an organization where I can participate,” she added.
Kelly said she was fortunate to have been introduced to swimming through the Philadelphia Parks section, but the lack of certain sports for many young girls contributed to the “disproportionate way racing appears in certain sports.”
“Either it’s not diverse because of the social economy, or it’s not diverse because of where the programming is,” Kelly added.
Kelly added that she didn’t think much about Title IX before she started working in sports (she was once the Title IX coordinator at Bucknell).
This is common. In a national survey of 1,000 people of color conducted by decision intelligence firm Morning Consult on behalf of The New York Times, more than half of respondents said they were not familiar with the law at all. Of the 133 women of color who responded that they played sports in middle school, high school, or college, 41 said they felt they benefited from Law IX.
Armstrong, who played basketball at Itwamba Community College in Mississippi and then at Southwest Louisiana University, said she believes there are more opportunities for black women today, in an age of increased empowerment and representation. Black women have dominant figures to admire in many sports, including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka in tennis as well as Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in the world.
“When you got older, you didn’t see that,” she said. “And we often say you cannot be what you cannot see.”
Most of the work still needs to be done at the training and management level, Armstrong said. In 2021, fewer than 400 black women coached women’s college sports teams, compared to about 3,700 white women and more than 5,000 white men (and very few women coached men’s teams).
The differences were most pronounced at the managerial level, and trends continued even in sports with the most black athletes.
“The battle to become the head coach of the women’s basketball team for black women has been intense,” Davis said, adding that the lack of black women in managerial levels has a lot to do with racial stereotypes that they are not strategic thinkers. “They are often more qualified after they have played and worked as assistant coaches for a long time, and are often the first to be sent off.”