The dogwood and crabapple trees are blossoming in early spring at Stanley Quarter Park in New Britain, Connecticut. In addition to being a recreational park, the area doubles as a practice space for both the men and women’s track and field teams at Central Connecticut State University. Their practice entails the same workout for men and women, depending on what event they run. Track and Field is just one of the many sports offered to both male and female athletes, but it wasn’t always this way.
One in twenty-seven girls participated in sports prior to 1972. Opportunities were limited to intramural sports and occasional ‘play days’ as sports committees fought to keep athletics male concentrated. With the Civil Rights Movement in full swing, women began taking inventory of the areas where they were experiencing discrimination; education and athletics quickly drew national attention. Their fight was heard, and on June 23, 1972, President Nixon signed into action the Title IX law, barring discrimination on the basis of sex for educational programs and other activities that receive federal funding. This coming June will mark the bills’ fiftieth anniversary.
Major strides have been made in women’s athletics, but for many, the change has taken decades to be seen. “When I was younger, I had the ability to play Little League baseball or football when I wanted. I played basketball too from the time I was eight years old. But my friends that were female did not,” says CCSU Director of Athletics, Tom Pincince sitting behind his desk in a CCSU athletics polo. “Our sports were super popular in high school. But there weren’t necessarily that many teams for my friends to play on.” Pincince makes a great point; it wasn’t all that long ago that opportunities for women athletes fell short.
CCSU’s Associate Athletic Director, Amy Strickland, recalls the lack of opportunities from her childhood. “My only opportunities were dancing, gymnastics, or by the time I got to high school, soccer. And that was it.” Strickland, a former CCSU Volleyball athlete, has worked at the school since 2004. She translates her experience as a student athlete towards her job, “Not everybody’s on a scholarship and doing the hard work and giving the dedication, so I put that into my job to understand that every single one of our athletes is a different individual.” The one category that separates the athletes is their gender. At CCSU, the ratio of male athletes to female athletes is 53:47.
“It’s telling them from a young age that boys are expected to be better athletes than the girls.”
Yet this isn’t an issue of whose roots begin at the collegiate level. From a young age, girls are not given the same opportunities as boys in sports. As a young player, Jessica Fengler, former collegiate athlete turned PE teacher, experienced this first hand. “I probably have eighty to ninety percent of the boys tell me that they want to be a professional athlete. Whereas all my girls want to be hairstylists, nail salon techs, or some of them want to do things like be a doctor or teacher. They tell me everything but an athlete.” At the state testing level, the fitness abilities of young girls are discounted. Fengler shares how the fourth grade girls are expected to run eleven laps to pass the pacer test, meanwhile the expectation for the boys is twenty-six laps. “It’s telling them from a young age that boys are expected to be better athletes than the girls.” At an age where boys and girls are so impressionable, these realities make it second nature to overlook girls’ involvement in sports.
The lack of exposure to many sports, especially on a professional level, plays a huge part in girls’ participation levels from a young age. For Fengler, turning on the television and seeing males on nearly all of the sports channels is discouraging. “For girls, it’d be interesting if they could turn on the TV and see a woman playing more often. They’d be more likely to be interested and say, ‘hey, I want to learn how to do that.’”
Fewer extracurricular sports are encouraged for girls than boys. Gymnastics, dance, and cheerleading are common sports that see female participation from a young age. “I don’t think it was advertised enough,” says CCSU Track and Field athlete, Emily Fedor, in regards to female participation in track. She wasn’t introduced to track clubs until high school.
The 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament in San Antonio, Texas, brought to light the inequalities that still exist in women’s collegiate sports. The training facilities for the women proved to be no more than a single rack of weights. Meanwhile, the men’s facility had plenty of weights, barbells, and workout benches for all teams to share. Ali Kershner, Stanford University’s sports performance coach, voiced her anger on social media at the discrepancy. Many others followed, leading the NCAA to perform an equity review,
“They’ve hired an outside company, they’ve done their gender equity review to try to identify where the weaknesses were, why was it not done correctly. You can identify that to a lot of the different programs across the country,” says Amy Strickland. CCSU is one of those programs. Over the course of the next eighteen months the CCSU’s Northeast Conference will conduct a gender equity review, giving the school an opportunity to identify any weaknesses.
One weakness identified by Emily Fedor is the locker rooms in Kaiser Hall at CCSU. While the men’s locker rooms are divided by sports teams; the women’s space is just one large area of lockers divided by benches for a few of the teams to use, “You walk into the girls locker room and it’s like a high school locker room. They’re smaller. And so you’re sharing the lockers with other teams. So it’s not equal.” Fedor, who works in the equipment room of the athletics building, has had access to both locker rooms.
While the struggles of low participation in women’s sports presents many challenges, there are many coaches out there who envision equality for their athletes. Eric Blake, CCSU’s head track coach, makes equality among the female and male athletes a priority. By having a mix of male and female coaches, athletes will always have someone there who they can feel comfortable talking to. He shares how CCSU’s Track and Field athletes also do many of the same workouts regardless of their gender. One area where girls may have a leg up on the boys is team funding. “We have a little bit more extra money to buy our women’s team multiple pairs of shoes. On our guys’ team, we are only able to purchase one [pair] of them.” Although the extra money exists as a result of lower participation levels, it is likely one of the few benefits the women enjoy.
“You get a lot more interest from the girls if they see these role models in their day to day life.”
Looking forward to the next fifty years, opportunities for women in sports must begin at a younger age, with encouragement for their participation being the first step, “At such a young age, we expect the males to do so much better than the females,” says Fengler. The change in mindset is perhaps the biggest hurdle to combat. “It’s a level of thinking that begins at home.” Fengler, with a hopeful smile, shares her goals to keep young girls encouraged to participate in sports. She shares how bringing in female coaches and athletes to talk to young girls can be the push they need; something she is actively trying to implement as a PE teacher. “You get a lot more interest from the girls if they see these role models in their day to day life.”
As Title IX’s fiftieth anniversary approaches, it’s important to acknowledge the level of progress that has been made. Women have been closing the gap since Title IX’s introduction. Just this past February, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team was granted a $24 million dollar settlement stemming from a lawsuit that showed evidence of unequal pay between them and the men’s team. WNBA games are broadcast on network and cable television. These professional achievements for women should continue to funnel down to collegiate and youth sports.
As the CCSU Track team heads to the NEC championship conference in early May, the future looks brighter for female athletes. “There’s no differentiation between the men’s and women’s teams. When we travel, we get the same food, same meal money, same lodgings and travel,” says Fedor. With spunk and attitude, Fedor puts it best, “I would tell a ten-year old runner, keep going. You’re going to face some stupid boys who tell you that they’re faster than you, and that track’s not a real sport. But just keep running and proving them wrong everyday.”
Ultimately, Title IX has been a landmark in the history of women’s athletics. A half-century later, the accomplishments of women in sports continue to break the glass ceiling. “I hope that when that ten-year-old gets to be my age that there’s equity in facilities funding and media coverage on the collegiate and professional level. And I hope one day women’s sports are celebrated on the same level that the NFL is in America.”
Header Photo Credit: Jared Burgess for Blue Muse Magazine
Sophie Sallusto is a Staff Writer for Blue Muse Magazine