What Rights Do Student Athletes Have Under Title IX?

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs that receive federal funding. One of the most well-known ways that this comes up is with respect to equity in athletics, both at the college level and in K-12 schools. Public schools and private schools that receive federal funding are required under Title IX to ensure a certain level of equity between male and female athletics.

One of the most basic requirements under Title IX is that schools must offer male and female students equal opportunities for participation in sports. In order for a school to comply with this participation requirement, it must satisfy at least one prong of a three-part test. If a school cannot meet at least one of the prongs, it may be liable for gender discrimination under Title IX.

The first prong looks at “proportionality”. In other words, is the percentage of athletic opportunities allotted to males and females approximately the same as the percentage of males and females enrolled at the school? For example, if only 25% of the spots on a school’s sports teams are available to girls, but girls make up 50% of the school’s student body, there is a proportionality problem.

The second prong looks at whether a school can demonstrate a history and ongoing practice of increasing athletic opportunities for the underrepresented gender (almost always girls) in response to that gender’s developing interests and abilities. For example, can the school demonstrate that it has continually added new programs for female athletes or opened up additional spots on girls’ teams? Cutting male sports teams, however, will not qualify as an increase in opportunities for girls.

Finally, under the third prong, a school can demonstrate compliance with Title IX if it shows that even though it is not providing girls with equal opportunities for athletic participation, it is nevertheless meeting the needs and interests of female students. Thus, a school must show that it has adequately assessed the interests of girls with respect to additional athletic opportunities and has responded to those findings. In essence, to succeed under this prong, a school would have to show that it conducted a thorough investigation and found that its girls did not want to be playing sports in greater numbers. This is generally very difficult to establish.

In addition to ensuring equitable participation rates for female athletes, Title IX also provides additional protections. Specifically, Title IX also requires schools to provide male and female athletes with equal treatment and benefits. Frequently referred to as the “laundry list,” Title IX requires equity between male and female athletes with respect to: (1) equipment and supplies; (2) scheduling of games and practice times; (3) travel and per diem allowances; (4) opportunity to receive academic tutoring, assignment and compensation of tutors (5) opportunity to receive coaching assignment and compensation of coaches; (6) locker rooms, practice and competitive facilities; (7) medical and training facilities and services (includes the weight room); (8) housing and dining facilities and services; (9) publicity and marketing; (10) support services; and (11) recruitment of student athletes. Thus, for example, if the boy’s football team receives new uniforms every year but the girl’s volleyball team is still wearing uniforms from ten years ago, there may be a violation of Title IX.

Title IX also requires various other protections. For example, schools must award athletic scholarship money to male and female athletes in proportion to their numbers at the school. According to a 1998 letter of clarification from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), anything greater than a 1% disparity raises a “strong presumption” of discrimination. Thus, if women constitute 50% of the athletes at a college, they must receive at least 49% of the school’s athletic scholarship money. Additionally, Title IX has an anti-retaliation provision that protects those who raise complaints of gender discrimination, including in athletics, from being retaliated against.

It is frequently difficult to obtain the data about a school’s athletic programs needed to establish a Title IX violation, especially in K-12 schools. Often, for example, a parent or a student will have only a sense that the girls sports teams are not being treated as well as the boys teams. If you have concerns that your school may be discriminating against female athletes, the Title IX lawyers at Sanford Heisler Sharp can evaluate your potential claims and help you fight to obtain equitable treatment.