The Magazine

No Medals for Title IX

Feb 18, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 22 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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IN FEBRUARY 1998, after an American team won the first Olympic gold medal ever awarded for women's hockey, there was a brief rainshower of patronizing media coverage, as is customary in such matters. Weren't they a great bunch of gals? And didn't they really deserve it? And--forget about them--didn't the rest of us deserve it even more, since it was our Congress that had passed that Title IX thing back in '72, finally forcing colleges to offer our women some serious varsity-level sports programs? And so on and so forth, blah, blah, blah.

A.J. Mleczko, the U.S. hockey squad's star defensewoman, thought all this attention was "wonderful," of course. But she also found the self-congratulatory spin everyone was putting on her team's triumph more than slightly weird. So far as Mleczko could tell, they'd come a long way, baby, pretty much entirely by themselves. And virtually unnoticed: "People say they love watching us play, and all we can ask is, 'How is that possible? Where'd you see us?'" Face it, Mleczko told the Washington Post, "Women's hockey has grown up in the dark."

Almost without exception, Mleczko and her teammates had each learned to play hockey as the only girl on the ice--and had been taunted for it. More than one of them had never so much as seen another female hockey player before joining the national program. Defensewoman Tara Mounsey, for example, had signed up while still a teenager in 1996, shortly after leading her otherwise all-boy high school team to the state championship, where she'd won top individual honors as the tournament's "Mr. Hockey." To be sure, a fair number of Mounsey's 1998 co-medalists had previously skated in a full-fledged women's program. But they'd done so with region-wide volunteer youth leagues, or at richly endowed prep schools, or, most importantly, on campuses like the University of New Hampshire and Providence and Harvard. And these were colleges--among a tiny handful across the country--that had been fielding top-flight varsity women's teams for years and years before Title IX was ever enforced.

Come to think of it, none of the women who won an Olympic gold medal in 1998--not one--had ever played hockey on a single team that owed even the slightest part of its existence to Title IX.

Oh, well. It's four years later already and Mleczko and Mounsey are back for a second Olympics, now underway in Salt Lake City, Utah. Their U.S. team has entered the competition on an astonishing 31-game winning streak, during which they've outscored their opponents by a combined 252 to 28. Most observers expect them to earn a repeat gold medal when the hockey final is played this Thursday. Many people are calling them the most dominant team, male or female, in the history of the sport.

And yet it remains the case, despite turnover at 11 of 25 roster spots since 1998, that none of the U.S. women has ever played hockey on a single team that owed even the slightest part of its existence to Title IX.

Do you suppose any of the NBC announcers or morning-paper sportswriters will take note of this detail? Neither do we. We suppose, instead, that our women's hockey Olympians, should they sweep through the games the way they're supposed to, will be advanced as proof--along with Brandi Chastain's legendary Nike-brand brassiere--that Title IX, at long last and all for the better, has permanently remade the gender map of American sports. In its application to a particular women's hockey team, this interpretation of events will be false and thus will cheat some genuinely peerless athletes of the full credit their accomplishment is due. By its application to life in general, however, this latest outburst of halfwit boosterism for Title IX will be falser and more damaging still.

For that law has become an outright pestilence. It has made millions of dollars in fees for attorneys representing a few dozen undergraduate plaintiffs. But it has made only a negligible contribution to the overall growth of women's sports at American universities. And in the process, Title IX has forced hundreds of schools to mothball decades-old team and Olympic-specialty programs, involving tens of thousands of lost varsity roster opportunities--for men.