Bend it like Title IX
At the end of Bend It Like Beckham, as Jess and Jules hug their goodbyes to family and friends and prepare for their lives in California, the global reach of Title IX is front and center. Equality, of course, takes more than legislation – we cannot legislate justice without making necessary cultural shifts, and we cannot legislate anything if we don’t support that legislation. So as the 50th anniversary of Title IX looms close, let’s up our game. While sports are but one avenue to create parity, they’re a pretty important one.
Just a few weeks ago, the film Bend it Like Beckham celebrated its 20th anniversary. Without question, this story about two young women from very different parts of London who find their way to the intercollegiate soccer pitch in the United States enabled many young women to feel seen in so many ways. As my friend Shireen Ahmed, a Canadian sport pundit, noted in a recent celebration of the film, “It forever changed the discourse on Brown girls and sport...on the big screen....” as well as provided us with “stories of young women in spaces where they shouldn't be” – namely, the soccer field.
Indeed, the film tackles many of the worries that young women – all young women – grapple with, from friendship and finding a sense of belonging to creating balance between personal passions and family obligations. But it also hits on a lot of marquee concerns, such as socio-economic inequity, systemic racism, the immigrant experience, female athletic identity (especially in terms of sexuality and normative notions of femininity) and, of course, sexism in sport.
That the film concludes with Jess and Jules, both British citizens, boarding a plane to take the next step in their soccer careers at a college in California is significant. That opportunity, of course, comes at the hands of the comprehensive U.S. law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program of activity – Title IX, which marks its own anniversary, 50 years, this June.
While Title IX is not entirely about sports, its impact on sport in the United States, from its results to its failures, its upshots to its disasters, is well-documented. Compliance in the U.S. is dictated by the Office of Civil Rights, which has outlined three arenas in which an institution can fulfill Title IX mandates, from providing proportional numbers of scholarships to ensuring equitable treatment of athletes, from uniforms to transportation to training facilities, including weight rooms at March Madness.
What is less recognized is the impact that Title IX – particularly as it pertains to women in sport – has had on the world writ large. Today, international athletes – such as Jess and Jules in Bend it Like Beckham – are playing in the U.S. intercollegiate system in record numbers. The number of international soccer players – again, like Jess and Jules – are case in point: at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, for example, squads from Canada, Chile, Jamaica, New Zealand, Nigeria, Scotland, Spain, and Thailand all fielded NCAA players. A deep dive into Canada’s roster shows that 20 of the 23 athletes at the World Cup had played for an NCAA D1 school, and during Group E play, when New Zealand faced Canada, 14 of the 22 starters on the pitch had played for a NCAA D1 school.
Over the last several years, the percentage of international athletes playing in the states has risen 50 percent. And it’s not just in soccer. In Tokyo last summer, more than 1,000 NCAA athletes – male and female – represented over 100 national delegations at the Olympics, more than double the number in Rio in 2016. These athletes are, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation’s recently published “Women in the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games: an analysis of participation, leadership and media coverage,” which I had the honor of contributing to, “secondary beneficiaries” of Title IX.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
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