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Saturday, December 07, 2019 — Houston, TX 60°

The Fifth Lap

By Gabe Cuadra     10/4/12 7:00pm

During my time here, I have grown to love fall Friday nights at Rice University. 

It goes beyond the fact that they begin the weekend and beyond the fact that they so often feature beautiful evenings you can actually enjoy free from Fondren Library.

Fall Friday nights are also consistently some of the best sports days at Rice, thanks to almost every one featuring either a women's soccer home game or a women's volleyball home game.

For the sake of what follows, allow me to pause and emphasize something from the above: It's two women's sports that make up the best sporting nights on campus. 

I almost feel silly highlighting the gender piece of the equation. The games are compelling not because the players are women, but because they are consistently exciting Rice home contests played at an impressively high level. 

However, the fact that they are women's sports underscores both the historical context, specifically that this is the 40th year since the passage of Title IX, and the simultaneous and somewhat perplexing broader state of women's athletics, which have experienced huge growth over this period.

 June 23 of this summer marked 40 years since the passage of Title IX, an education bill seeking to promote equality between genders. It has become largely synonymous with sports because of a provision within the law requiring gender proportionality in financial aid, opportunity and support (such as coaching, medical attention and facilities) in varsity athletics. 

The law is often credited with the quick rise in participation of female athletes at all levels of competition. As our nation's attitudes toward the role of women evolved, so did women's participation in top-level athletics (with each probably positively impacting the other). 

The growth in women's athletics has indeed been impressive. According to the American Association of University Women, in the years between Title IX's passing in 1971-72 and 2007-08, female participation in high school sports jumped 940 percent growing from just under 300,000 to over 3 million. Over the same period, male participation increased 19 percent.

At the NCAA Varsity level, female participation jumped from 29,972 to 166,728 between 1972 and 2005, a 456 percent increase. Simultaneously, the growth on the men's side was 31 percent to 222,838. 

It is important to note that the provision has been criticized, fairly or unfairly depending on who you ask, for limiting opportunities for men in non-revenue sports. 

However, whether this reality is driven by Title IX or instead by the increasing emphasis on football and basketball spending is a debate for another time and should not distract from the strides of women's athletics over the last four decades.

The more visionary supporters of Title IX no doubt imagined a world in which women's teams would add significantly to a campus' athletics experience, just as women's soccer, volleyball and other sports do here at Rice.  

However, they probably did not expect to, at the very same moment in time, be able to go to a major sports news outlet and not see a single headline about women's sports. Yet at the time of this writing, ESPN's website does not have a single front-page headline regarding women's athletics (and it's a pretty low bar, as the page included the headline "Ex-OSU star, 63, busted in road rage shooting"). 

It's a dichotomy that highlights the particularly perplexing state of development of women's athletics.

On the one hand, many individual sports have seen women reach parity in coverage and exposure with men. This summer's Olympics were a beautiful case in point: Swimmer Missy Franklin was just as big a household name as counterparts Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps; Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross of  the U.S. track delegation were as prominent as Leo Manzano or Aries Merrit; Gabby Douglas and her teammates captured the nation's attention and imagination in gymnastics, while Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings were by far the most popular beach volleyball duo of the summer. 

Outside of the Olympics, women's tennis has, depending on the year, garnered the same or more attention than men's. 

However, golf stands out as a meaningful exception, pointing to the idea that there are more complex forces at work than simply women's individual sports being more compelling. 

Women's team sports, particularly soccer, volleyball, and to a lesser extent, basketball, have seen incredible participation and interest at the club, high school and collegiate levels. 

However, their success at the professional level is left wanting. Women's soccer is very popular during major international tournaments, but then quickly falls off the grid during the rest of the year. 

Professional women's volleyball players travel overseas to compete. And, while I'm a little ashamed to admit this, I have no idea when the Women's National Basketball Association playoffs start or end (and I suspect I'm not alone). 

While the reasons for this dichotomy are complex, its foundation is likely rooted today more in cultural inertia than in sexism. The popularity of various sports change, but they do so very slowly. Interestingly, women's sports have risen most quickly when they either share the stage with men (the Olympics or tennis) or when they are inherently tied to an adopting fan base (high school and NCAA sports). These elements seem to have been key elements in overcoming the inertia against these sports. 

It's common to see youth girls' soccer teams out at Rice games, either in a block as fans or working as ball-girls. The interaction is an awesome example of women's teams being positive role models for the girls following in their footsteps. 

But I wonder if, maybe someday in the future, we'll see the boys' youth teams out there too. Then we'll know that women's athletics have fully arrived.  

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