Gender Battles on Title IX

Learning Curve

by Bonnie J. Morris
Published on January 9, 2003, 12:00am | Comments

The sound of macho-nacho cheese snacks pouring into man-sized serving bowls reminds me that Super Bowl season is here. But for many women, a more pressing issue in American sports is the Bush administration's intention to "revisit" Title IX law, presumably to ferret out discrimination against men. Schools that are clearly required to provide equal athletic opportunities to women have been slashing "non-revenue-producing" men's teams, like diving and wrestling, to shift a few bucks toward women's athletics, while the football program -- the alleged "third sex" -- keeps its fat budget and scholarships untouched.

Not surprisingly, the young male wrestlers, divers and gymnasts who have been unfairly eliminated by football-biased athletic directives are gearing up to blame feminism for their predicament in a series of lawsuits challenging Title IX. Will we in the gay and lesbian community see this drama as pitting a future Greg Louganis against a future Martina Navratilova?

Defenders of football as a male-only American tradition may feel that pesky tomboy women have made too many gains in sports in the thirty years since Title IX banned sex discrimination in any school program receiving federal funds, including athletics. Look at the recent hype about the first female place-kicker in a Division I football game -- Katie Hnida playing for New Mexico in the Las Vegas Bowl, in case you missed the historic kick. Sports journalist John McGrath of the Tacoma News Tribune commented on this breakthrough, "There must be a last line between political correctness and downright absurdity." The gender-panic created by women's advances in mainstream sports can be seen in the title of local author Mariah Burton Nelson's classic text, The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football.

Of course, generations of gay boys in America, so often made into punching bags for bullies at recess, have remarked that the real absurdity is forcing unwilling youths into violent sports. Upholding football as the last hallmark of male virility no doubt contributes to our cultural anxiety about sex roles. What normal girl wants to play football? What normal boy doesn't? Thus homophobia swirls around athletics, as does basic misogyny: hey, sissy boy, you throw like a girl.

Even the gay activist community is guilty at times of discrediting the achievements of elite women athletes. How well I recall the AIDS Ride ads of the mid 1990s, one of the mini-commercials airing amid the coming attractions at the Janus and Dupont Circle movie theatres featured a young man who sighed, "A friend of mine told me not only was he doing [the AIDS Ride] but his mother was, too. And I thought, Well! If your mother can do it, I can...." No possibility that Mother might be an ass-kicking jock just back from the Gay Games, slung with gold medals, a sinewy arm around her girlfriend. Mom-aged women -- like me at 41 -- are supposedly sluggish. You know, like Martina.

Although if there were any truth to the notion that all lesbians are naturally gifted athletes, fashioned by the Almighty to be our nation's gym teachers, then I'd be an Olympic speedskater racing past Apolo Ohno right now. The truth is, I'm not a classically buff lesbian softball player -- I'm just dating one.

My girlfriend took the time recently to talk to my Athletics and Gender class at George Washington University, reminding my young student-athletes what life was like for gifted sportswomen before Title IX. Once upon a time, there were no athletic scholarships, no varsity teams, no uniforms, no outlet for the curve ball thrown by a female arm.

Yet thirty years later, female athletes who have won scholarships are constantly challenged to prove that they aren't gay -- to fans, coaches, boyfriends and the corporate marketing folks. The actual homos on women's teams are often silenced and isolated -- or credited with unnatural powers of strength simply because of their orientation, not their years of practice in a gym.

As a fan and advocate of female athletes, and as an out lesbian professor who goes to my students' games daringly dressed in my Michigan Womyn's Music Festival sweatshirt, I hope to see ongoing support of the women who are making it in the "man's world" of sports. I hope to see some of that sacred football money shifting over to the honorable gay boys in diving and gay gals in softball. And one way to make that change a reality is to make those sports "revenue producing" by attending the games.

So, my New Year's wish: let's see full bleachers at local women's athletic events, for starters, whether it's the Mystics games or the women's basketball season at all our local universities. And let's not make basic equal opportunity to play into a federal gender war -- or an issue of macho girls taking something away from male turf.

Bonnie J. Morris, Ph.D., is on the women's studies faculty at George Washington University and Georgetown University. She can be reached at bmorris@metroweekly.net.


Call 202-638-6830 to advertise here in Marketplace