Serena Williams and Getting “Emotional” for Title IX

After Serena Williams won her fifth Wimbledon title in stunning fashion on Saturday, she was asked a familiar question on the tournament’s storied Centre Court. It’s a question that seems to be posited to every female athlete at every level of competition: “Was it difficult for you to control your emotions?”

It’s true that men are sometimes asked the “emotions” question but this is a question women athletes are always asked. It speaks to a broader sentiment that both predates and transcends the playing field: the idea that women are just too emotional, too hysterical, too mercurial, to be taken seriously in any walk of life. This runs so deeply in the marrow of US society, we rarely - unless male politicians are lobbying for involuntary vaginal ultrasounds – step back and comment on just how destructive it is.  Statistics were released in May that show the United States ranks 78th on earth in female legislative representation. On questions of pay equity, health care, and any semblance of reproductive freedom, women are in a constant state of insecurity, and forced to live a precarious life.

When Serena had to field the “emotions” question on the highest possible stage, it was for me a window into why so many women and men celebrated the recent 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX. There is arguably no piece of progressive legislation that's touched more people's lives than Title IX, which allowed young women equal opportunity in education and sports. According to the Women's Sports Foundation, one in 35 high school girls played sports 40 years ago; one in three do today. Before Title IX, fewer than 16,000 women participated in college sports; today that number exceeds 200,000. All stereotypes about women being too “emotional” to handle sports were answered when the gyms were unlocked, and they arrived in droves.

It is a reform that has improved the quality of life for tens of millions of women around the country. Yet when it was passed, the critiques from the world of sports were ample. Sports columnist Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution expressed much of the conventional wisdom of the sports page when he wrote, "What are we after, a race of Amazons?  Do you want a companion or a broad that chews tobacco?  What do you want for the darling daughter, a boudoir or a locker room full of cussing and bruises? A mother for your grandchildren or a hysterectomy?"

Frightening though it was, Bisher was representing majority opinion in the United States, but since then public opinion has shifted dramatically. As the 40th anniversary passed, polls showed Title IX holding an 80% approval rating,  fitting for legislation that has has touched the lives of so many.

But if we all love Title IX so much, why is it so lonely? Given its popular and unqualified success, shouldn’t we have every right to expect legislation aimed at uprooting sexism in all kinds of institutions beyond the world of sports? The need for this kind of intervention can be seen most plainly if we look at the gender politics that surround who is actually coaching these hundreds of thousands of women now free to play ball.

In 1972, women coached 90% of women’s college athletic teams. Today it’s only 42.9 percent. As journalist Megan Greenwell wrote,“Once universities were required to treat women's sports as serious pursuits and fund them accordingly, men started wanting jobs coaching women. And once men started wanting jobs coaching women, men started getting a disproportionate number of those jobs. It's one of the most obvious, yet least talked-about, forms of institutional sexism out there: Coaching jobs are only for women when men don't want them.”

I spoke about this to Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the great 1984 Olympic Gold Medal swimmer. Today, Hogshead-Makar is law professor as well as the Senior Director of Advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation. She said,

“The drop in women in coaching represents the bias against women, the sexism in sports. When two candidates are up, a male and a female, there is a bias that sports equals male, that the traits sports inculcates are male ones, and that the man would be better for the job. I’ve seen it happen too many times.. Women in coaching is a little glimpse of what would happen if the decision-maker’s bias about girls and boys, men and women in sports were allowed to go unchecked.”

The conclusions we can draw from this state of affairs should be "radical common sense": If we like Title IX, we should also see it as a living breathing argument for a new Equal Rights Amendment that guarantees pay equity, health services, and child care subsidies for all women in need.  As Title IX demonstrates, without actual regulation and intervention, the profound biases in this “Great American Melting Pot” are all just allowed to simmer in peace. If these biases are ever going to be uprooted and challenged, we need real civil rights legislation with actual teeth. As Serena Williams and Title IX show, when the broadest numbers of people have opportunity for success, we all benefit. But if we are going to win this kind of equality in sports and all walks of life, we all might just have to get a little bit emotional.

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Male feminists

Great piece Dave. Women need more allies like yourself, and America needs more people who realize that racism, anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT views, sexism and gender rights, etc are all multiple sides to the single issue of human and civil rights. We cannot concede that racism must be addressed while simultaneously profiling immigrants. We cannot agree to pay women more while also denying the LGBT community the same rights as the rest of us. As usual you are on point and razor sharp. Thank you.

Greatest piece of legislation?

'There is arguably no piece of progressive legislation that's touched more people's lives than Title IX'

Hang your head in shame Mr Zirin. Have you never heard of the National Health Service? The greatest piece of progressive, social legislation passed by any government, anywhere.

And if you want to stay closer to home, how about the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960's?

Or, even, Obamacare.

A decent article, but you lose a lot of credibility when you descend to hyperbole like that to make your case.

Possible sexism, but let's look deeper

After the tournament, Andrew Murray was referred to as emotional about the pressure of winning Wimbledon as a native son. At the baseball All-Star game, Chipper Jones was asked about his emotions in his last appearance in the game. Perhaps Federer, certainly Sampras, and Lendl weren't asked about their emotions, but those guys have all been known for nearly robotic personas, beyond just being male. Like many tennis stars--male and female--Serena has had notable outbursts, and she had just equaled her sister's number of Wimbledon champs. She is human first and a woman second. Why wouldn't she be emotional? It may be a trite interview question, but not perniciously sexist.

As for Title IX, the connection between Serena and the legislation is tenuous at best. She is a woman and an athlete, but she, like pretty much every Grand Slam tennis champ ever, reached the pinnacle of her sport completely outside the mechanism of college sports.

As for the trend in coaching positions, male candidates have indeed encroached upon women's sports, but as with any job, once pay and prestige increase, more people will want it. Even the numbers you cite for participation suggest there are roughly 10 times more positions available in the field then 40 years ago.

Hogshead-Makar and Greenwell may well be correct about bias toward male candidates. Athletic directors are usually male, and it is plausible they may favor male candidates. With the raw numbers, one thing to consider about that is that boys grow up wanting to play sports, or failing that, to coach. This has been true since well before Title IX existed, so to factor in the new openings with the increased pay across the board, it's easy to see how men would take a big bite out of that pie. Men may get hired more often, but what is the sexual breakdown among the candidates?
If as many or more women lobby for the positions and still get frozen out, that would be one thing, but if more men apply to begin with, law of average is as much a factor as premeditated sexism. Anecdotally, I can say after coaching girls' youth rec teams that these leagues definitely want more female coaches in their ranks, but recruiting can be difficult.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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