LSA Senior Shannon Niznik hasn’t brushed her hair in three days. Her face is buried in an LSAT book, and she is studying anonymously in the Business School’s Winter Garden. No one asks to pose for pictures with her; no one asks for her autograph, no one gawks, points or even gives a second glance as they walk by.
In today’s age, the sighting of a high-profile male athlete can be compared to seeing a movie star in person. Even if they aren’t recognized immediately, the University of Michigan athletic apparel and the infamous blue backpack are enough to garner at least a few hushed loks.
But for Niznik, she only causes a stir on game days, when — as a senior member of the Michigan cheerleading team —she is asked to pose for pictures with kids, students and husbands.
“On game days we’re always posing for photos, holding babies and talking to people,” Niznik said. “Cheerleaders are well known for the uniform that we’re wearing, but people don’t know a thing about us. Only until recently on the website I was just Shannon the cheerleader. They don’t even realize we exist outside of the uniform and pom poms, it’s an identity-less entity.”
Such is life for many female athletes. Even in the modern era, female athletes sometimes lack the recognition and — in many cases, respect — that male athletes receive.
Across the nation, every Division I school has roughly the same scholarships for men and women, facilities are equitable nationwide, and women are given ample opportunity to compete for their teams, just like men.
But the problem of gender equality in sports remains unsolved. More than four decades after Title IX, the push for gender equality in sports has reached what may be the difficult final stretch.
A legal history
When Title IX of the Education Amendment Act was passed in 1972, the future of college sports was merely an afterthought. The act was put into place to ensure that the quality of education in America was equal for both males and females. Doors opened for female faculty and administrators; standardized tests were monitored and altered to fairly assess to both genders equally; arts, music and theater programs were designed to balance male and female participation and involvement.
But as the years wore on, it became clear that athletics would be the biggest but most controversial change under the law. In the late 1970s, female athletes began to file lawsuits, claiming athletic departments weren’t taking the law seriously. The 1980s saw progress, but according to Michigan Softball Coach Carol Hutchins — who was hired as an assistant in 1983 before taking over as head coach two years later — the movement was far from desired equality.
“We were just a cut above intramural sports,” Hutchins said. “Title IX passed in ’72, but it wasn’t being well received when I arrived. Athletic departments recognized they had a federal court case on their hands if they didn’t comply, so schools had women’s sports, but they weren’t being supported real well.” she said.
Despite offering a women’s gym class and even introducing a women’s basketball team that played against Eastern Michigan in 1898, the University didn’t offer varsity sports until they lawfully had to, and didn’t comply with Title IX’s mandate on scholarships until 1989.
Equal focus on male and female sports at the University wasn’t given until the ruling of the 1992 Supreme Court case, Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, which ruled punitive damages should be awarded to those who suffered when Title IX is intentionally avoided. It was then, Hutchins said, that women’s sports finally had the attention of the University Athletic Department.
“Out of those 40 years (of Title IX), the first 20 we weren’t playing for championships, we were playing because we had to have a team out there,” Hutchins said. “We never started a practice before 8 o’clock in the middle of the winter because we had to let all the men’s sports go before us. They were fully funded; we were on shoe strings. Around the mid-90s we were taken more seriously, and now we’re seeing women’s sports looked at based on their success on the field just like the men are.”
Today, the effects of Title IX can be seen all over the sports world, and Ann Arbor is no exception. Nearly a million viewers watched Hutchins’ softball team fall to Washington in last year’s Women’s College World Series. Michigan currently boasts 14 varsity women’s sports, one more than men’s varsity sports teams, and the University complies with Title IX on every documentable level.
Women’s participation in sports is at an all-time high, but according to Sport Management Prof. Ketra Armstrong, an associate dean of kinesiology, compliance with the law is only the first step toward equality.
“Title IX has caused female athletes to have greater participation and more empowerment in sports,” Armstrong said. “But there were unintended (bad) consequences. The whole idea was to provide equality, but what came with Title IX was a decline in female coaches and administrators.”
Armstrong noted that before Title IX, women held the majority of administrative positions in women’s sports. Yet after Title IX, the number of women’s coaches for women’s teams dwindled to 43 percent.
Though Armstrong’s numbers are based off national research, the University follows trend in terms of the declining numbers of female administrators. Three decades ago, the year before Hutchins took over as Head Coach, nine of the 10 women’s varsity sports were coached by women. Today, seven of 14 women’s varsity coaches are male.
Armstrong, who has played, coached and researched at a Division I level in addition to working with the NCAA and Olympics to promote social justice and gender equality, feels that the administrative loophole has prevented athletics from reaching true gender equality 42 years after Title IX passed.
“We aren’t seeing the same parallel improvements across the board in women’s athletics, even today,” Armstrong said. “The number of females in managerial roles today is disheartening, because that’s where the effective change stems from.”
Women on the field
On the field itself, female athletes still face an uphill battle gaining the same respect as males. According to Armstrong, the atmosphere of apathy or hospitality stems from centuries of societal norms.
“Sport has always been perceived as a male domain,” Armstrong said. “Sport was the way in which men practiced masculinity, it was a rite of passage. Due to this, women have always been perceived as invaders, and that’s made it hard for them to really earn the same level of respect.”
Despite the societal prejudice, science might be the biggest obstacle. According to Michael Messner, author of “Power at Play: Sports, and the problem of masculinity,” the average adult male is 5 inches taller than the average female, and is comprised of 40 percent muscle and 15 percent fat, while females are have about 23 percent muscle and 25 percent fat. This equates to greater buoyancy in water, skeletal structure, better balance and superior flexibility. Due to these bodily differences, girls tend to participate in higher numbers in synchronized swimming, gymnastics, cheerleading and other “softer” sports.
“Some sports have become gendered as feminine,” Armstrong said. “They’re non-contact and allow women to look girly. It’s a sex-role conflict by virtue of the female identity, and we see girls being funneled into these sports more often.”
Among those funneled into the “female” sports is Kinesiology senior Kristin Nagle. Since the age of two, Nagle has done gymnastics, eventually earning a spot on Michigan’s team. A self-professed tomboy, Nagle struggled fitting in for as long as she can remember.
“I always tried to adapt and form to what women should be,” Nagle said. “Hair, makeup, earrings, looking back it’s kind of sad, it wasn’t me. I was just trying to fit society’s mold and fit in with my sport, it wasn’t who I am.”
This concept of societal pressure is what Armstrong refers to as “cognitive dissonance.” The idea is that to avoid being perceived as too masculine, female athletes accentuate femininity. From fashion to speech patterns, even the most masculine women try to assume the same identity as everyone else.
After leaving the gymnastics team to join the Olympic weightlifting club last year, Nagle found that the shame of being masculine only increased. She carried the identity normally reserved for men everyday, and only when she accepted it herself did the heavy load lighten.
“When I told people I did weightlifting, I wasn’t OK with it myself,” Nagle said. “I thought it was very manly, and something felt wrong about it. I think women have to be stronger, find their own strength inside them. We’re trained by society that men are athletic and women are not. It takes a female to be ok with it herself first. It sucks; it’s not cool, not fun.”
A changing role
Shannon Niznik just wanted to practice. As a member of the Michigan Cheerleading team, she was taking part in August practices, in which the team was preparing for both the football season and to defend their 2013 National Championship. As the first half of the 12-hour practice wound down and a lunch break was set to begin, the team was given an assignment several days before its first class.
“This bank gave Michigan a donation, and they were having a party,” Niznik said. “So we all had to stop practice and go to a bank on Main Street and clap for them as they walked out of a meeting.”
Without any time for questions, concerns or even background as to whom the people were or what they did, the team quickly got ready for the impromptu performance. As the bank staffers walked out of their early afternoon meeting they were greeted by the same maize and blue pom poms that have greeted the nation’s winningest football team for decades.
“Of course they were all loving it because we’re half-naked in our crop-tops with all these old executives walking in,” Niznik said. “I just remember thinking ‘I don’t know who these people are or what they did, and I’m creeped out because I’m half-naked in a bank.’”
The role of cheerleaders is different than any other sport — male or female — on campus. The team must simultaneously train to defend their National Championship and represent the face of the University.
“Everyone knows the uniforms and what cheerleaders are,” Niznik said. “So when the University needs a stand-in or wants to make their presence known they just send us, because we have pretty faces and shiny pom poms and really stick out.”
While cheerleaders can be the face of the University, other women’s sports find themselves with the added burden of being an inspiration as well.
In the early days of the Title IX era, the role of women’s sports in college was simply to fill scholarships. Today, women’s sports still fail to generate enough revenue to support themselves, but the role female athletes play has changed.
“Women’s athletics has always been a place to show what women can accomplish in society,” Armstrong said. “Sports has been a leader in empowering women, and today many girls even in areas other than sports are inspired by athletes, but because the athletes are successful in a visible way.
“It’s not about what they do in sport, but how they navigate the gendered terrain. By doing well in sports, female coaches and athletes can show what women can do in other male-dominated areas, and that can have a tremendous impact on society,” she said.
In her 29 seasons as head coach of the Michigan softball team, Hutchins has never had a losing season. Unsurprisingly, the Michigan softball team has more Twitter followers and receives more media coverage than the baseball team. Yet of all the accomplishments her teams have had over the years, Hutchins knows the biggest one is inspiring female leaders of the future.
As NBA hall-of-famer Charles Barkley pointed out in 1993, male athletes don’t have to be role models. The success of male sports continues to grow, and society will go on if Barkley or other male athletes fail to live up to moral or societal standards. But today, women don’t have that luxury.
“They have to be good citizens,” Hutchins said. “They have to be good students and represent the University as ambassadors. (Softball player) Sara Driesenga had to walk out of the locker room door after pitching a loss and giving up the winning hit and still be on her A-game for the kids. It’s important to recognize that all these little girls look up to you and want to be you.”
Fair play: The future movement
Throughout history, sports have paved the road for change in society. From uniting social and economic classes to breaking down racial barriers, equality on the field has often been achieved first, with society following suit.
If Title IX were a living woman, she’d be middle-aged. At 42, the law enforcing gender equality between federally-funded activities has begun to do just that.
But the law can only control so much. The way women’s athletics are perceived is far from equal to men’s. From January 2000 to June 2011, Sports Illustrated featured women on just 35 of their covers — roughly 4.9 percent of 716 published issues.
According to Armstrong and Hutchins, this pattern won’t last long. The two figures who have overseen the development of women’s sports feel the recent focus on women’s sports has had an impact on the young adults of today, and believe it won’t be long before today’s youth will lead society to a state of complete equality.
“(Women’s sports) are still evolving,” Hutchins said. “My father’s generation couldn’t even fathom gender equality, but it’s generational. People are viewing women’s athletics a heck of a lot better than they were 10, 20 years ago. It’s evolving, just like society is still evolving, but we always have to be vigilant for equality. By the next generation, we’ll be pretty close.”
A look inside Armstrong’s “Gender and Sport” class proves Hutchins’ point. As the sun crept over the horizon at 8:30 a.m., students slowly filed in. Once the class began, students engaged in lively discussions, ranging in topic from the caliber of the NBA All-Star game to locker room culture to Sheryl Swoope’s sexuality conflict and the media’s portrayal of lesbian athletes. But throughout the class, the thread of hope remained clear.
“This generation gets it,” Armstrong said. “When I teach my classes, my students are phenomenal. Hope is on the horizon. This generation embraces the social justice concept and has the belief that gender equality is something society needs, that life should be fair and rules are there to promote fair play.”
Laws are put into place to lay the foundation for change. They can’t dictate the reaction, perception or acceptance of those affected by the law. Title IX has pushed women’s sports from an afterthought to an obligation to an opportunity. Now, the burden is on those involved in the sports world to ensure women’s athletics garner equal recognition and respect as men’s sports.