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Sports equality is stuck in a Title IX comfort zone

In the world of women's sports, Title IX is seen as the starting point of the conversation.

And while it remains a good beginning, Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano believe there are miles to go before the gender equity monster finally goes to sleep.

In their book, the authors argue that Title IX created a sex-segregated athletics system that has hindered the growth of women's sports -- from skill level to opportunities to legitimacy in the American sporting consciousness.

"Organized sport truly is the most sex-segregated secular institution in our society," they write. "More than a reflection of actual physical differences between males and females, it reveals cultural norms and our present comfort zone."

McDonagh and Pappano take a general historic look at the evolution of sports in American society, both its development as a positive influence for boys and men and the deep-rooted historical stereotypes that have plagued women's development in sports, from the introduction of basketball to girls by Sandra Berenson in the early 1900s to control of female physical educators in the 1960s.

They take to task the invented barriers for women's participation -- from attire to rules -- and note that differences in rules for the same game are arbitrary and reinforce gender stereotypes. These differences include different distances (consider most collegiate cross-country meets are 8K for men and 5K for women) and different rules (the shot clock in women's college basketball is 30 seconds while in men's it is 35 seconds).

These help create and perpetuate the notion that men are biologically superior in all physical activity. McDonagh and Pappano question this notion throughout the book, noting that sex-based differences can be a benefit in some sports and a disadvantage in others. For instance, women's biological makeup is often a plus in endurance sports.

But more to the point, they argue that stereotypes that set limits -- whether through legal means, historical practice or social taboos -- are looking at group characteristics instead of individual ones. An NFL linebacker, they say, would be ill-equipped to be a jockey, yet the comparison of men vs. women athletes is often the equivalent of comparing a linebacker with a female gymnast. Further, the "historical taboo on women's athletic training" has hindered women, as a group, from developing increased athletic ability -- a nod to social influences on biology.

Aside from the biological arguments, McDonagh and Pappano make some interesting points about Title IX and compare that 1972 statute, which allows sex-segregated sports, with Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964, which deals with equal employment opportunity and essentially outlawed sex-segregated jobs.

Their issue with Title IX is that it does allow coercive sex-segregation -- in other words, having separate but equal men's and women's athletic programs. However as they chronicle, when inequity in athletic opportunities has been challenged under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, the courts have continually upheld that separate is not equal.

It's an interesting and fresh read. But while it raises many interesting questions for discussion, the book lacks a compelling, focused argument for what's next.

Their 10 recommendations (which are brief and come at the very end of the book) include the usual fare of getting more and better media exposure for women's sports and encouraging women to financially support women's teams. But there are some points that could be a starting point for wider discussions, and more meaningful change, when proposing to do away with gender-based rules for the same sport and increasing co-ed sport opportunities, which the authors argue (though not strongly enough) would benefit both girls and boys.

Amy Moritz is a sportswriter for The Buffalo News covering collegiate and women's sports.

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Playing with the Boys: Why Separate Is Not Equal in Sports

By Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano

Oxford University Press

349 pages, $19.95

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