UCLA Professor Analyzes Effects of Title IX in Youth Sports
Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 14, 2013 02:03
“A lot of us experience sports as an escape, a place to experience something separate from the rest of our lives. In reality, that is far from the case.”
Michael Messner, professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of California Los Angeles, presented his lecture, “Four Decades after Title IX: Sports, Kids, Gender and Families,” on Monday night. Messner spoke on the changes in sports and gender expectations since Title IX was established in 1972. He offered an in-depth analysis on the progression and reestablishment of gender norms in youth sports.
“Interestingly enough, there is nothing in the definition of Title IX that relates to sports,” Messner said. “But for the most part, Title IX has been used to push for equality in elementary, high school, and college sports in the last 41 years.”
Messner spent seven years doing field work on Title IX’s effects in youth sports. Much of his research was completed during his sons’ little league games and practices. In his lecture, Messner noted a rapid change in the expectation of girls in sports that has occurred since Title IX was put into effect. Two-thirds of adolescent girls are playing in United States youth organized sports, 55 percent of which are community-based leagues. Of the parents Messner polled, 95 percent believe that playing in sports raising a young girl’s self-esteem.
“Parents believe sports are particularly beneficial for daughters,” Messner said. “Sports build self-confidence and leadership capacities, they enhance a girl’s social status, and there is a direct correlation to higher school achievement.”
Messner reminded the audience that this change has taken time. Forty years ago, women were rarely seen on a field or court. Now, most young girls participate in sports. Messner placed this change in gender norms in a historical perspective.
“I’m interested in the strains and tensions in a given historical moment,” Messner said. “We are in a historical moment where we can no longer say boys can play sports and girls can’t. Sports can no longer tell us a simplistic story of ourselves—that boys are strong and macho, and girls are weak and fragile.”
Messner compared youth sports to a terrain of contested gender relations.
“Women can now play tough and competitively,” Messner said. “This change is a form of empowerment for women and young girls. It is also a site of retrenchment for hegemonic masculinity. With a change in social acceptance for women, men’s roles in sports are being questioned.”
Referring to his book This is All for the Kids: Gender, Families and Youth Sports, Messner explained how parents and coaches are handling changes in gender roles.
“I held in-depth interviews with 50 coaches 30 years after Title IX,” Messner said. “While nearly every parent said they believed in equality for girls and boys, they believed the genders should be treated differently in youth sports … For girls, parents said sports were about empowerment. Sports stretch girls from their nature. Parents said boys were hard-wired for aggression and competition … Boys and sports is just a natural fit for adults. This is really problematic when sports are a natural disaster for boys.”
Messner went on to explain his son’s experience with youth sports. Unlike the other boys on the soccer field, his son was not interested in playing competitively. His son’s lack of interest deemed him an outcast.
“This idea that sports are hard-wired into boys really needs to be questioned, and we really need to be careful,” Messner said. “Over a 10-year period, young boys learn to convert any feelings of pain and sadness to a socially acceptable masculine emotional display. The result is that boys have a reduced ability to show vulnerability and those that do display vulnerability are seen as outsiders.”
Messner concluded the presentation by looking ahead to the year 2020. Messner believes that women’s participation in sports will continue to expand, fathers will become more participatory, and there will be a larger awareness of the health costs of sports.
“While we are thinking about the progression of feminism, I would like us to think about the narrow constructions of masculinity that can have serious health and emotional effects,” he said. “Youth sports are a place for girls and boys to develop interpersonal skills, good habits, and they learn how to come back from a loss. I want to see kids from all backgrounds learn these skills. But I think we also need to think a little bit more carefully about the standards of boys and girls in sports.” n