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Column: The legacy of Title IX at Ohio State and the quest toward progress

Are we there yet?

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2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Ice Hockey Championship Photo by Justin Berl/NCAA Photos/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX — the landmark civil rights legislation that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any schools or educational institution that receives federal funding. While Title IX covers the full gamut of education, one of the most high-profile areas it’s impacted has been athletics.

With one of the most robust athletic departments in the nation, one might expect Ohio State to lead the way when it comes to supporting women’s sports and enacting Title IX to its fullest potential. In some ways, it would seem that by sheer numbers, Ohio State is leading the way. Ohio State supports 19 varsity sports for women’s teams. Comparatively, Stanford, oft cited for its numerous Capital One Cup and Director’s Cup recognitions, has 20. Michigan has just 14.

In other ways, negative actions have a much more crushing impact on even the most valiant efforts, even if they are tangential to the athletic department. It wasn’t so long ago that Ohio State found itself embroiled in a Title IX-centric scandal involving the famed marching band. The hazing and harassment allegations in 2014 relating to the band are perhaps the most disturbing examples, when then-band director Jonathon Waters, who’d led the band for two seasons, was found to have overseen a deep-seeded culture of sexual harassment.

Progress, though, is a long road, and it’s taken every minute of these 50 years of Title IX for the nation’s major athletic departments, women’s leagues and other institutions to catch up. We can — and should — expect this level of progress to continue. As Jami and I discussed on Play Like a Girl this week, Title IX benefits all sports because it starts at the youngest, most basic level — elementary school sports — and goes all the way through college.

That means that we are just now reaping the full benefits of the legislation. With 50 years of progress, today’s young women have seen full generations of women who benefited from Title IX and built women’s college and professional sports to what we see today. By way of example, these women are coming of age in a time when the WNBA is flourishing in its 25th season. The WNBA itself has benefited and gotten so good because the players it is drawing from have been able to compete from a young age.

Ohio State has certainly had a role in that legacy. One of the greatest players in women’s basketball program history, Katie Smith, was born in 1974 and had the full benefit of playing hoops growing up — although even she had to play on a boys’ team in her youth. Smith went on to break the Big Ten’s career points record (men’s or women’s) and be named conference player of the year. Ultimately, she became the first female athlete at Ohio State to have her number retired.

While Smith is a great example of an individual athlete’s success, when it comes to claimed national titles won by women’s teams, however, the record is painfully dismal. In all, Ohio State women’s teams have won just four NCAA titles in their program histories:

  • Women’s Rowing (2013, 2014, 2015)
  • Women’s Ice Hockey (2022)

From a timing perspective, there are two ways to look at this. On the negative side, why did it take so long to achieve success, with the first championships only coming in the last decade? More positively, though, it’s encouraging to see momentum building among women’s programs.

By comparison, men’s teams have won 24 NCAA titles. Of these, 16 titles came before the enactment of Title IX in 1972, mostly in men’s swimming and diving. Of course, that still means that men’s teams have twice as many titles as women’s over relatively the same period. Granted, these numbers do not include non-NCAA championships, which excludes one of the winningest programs of any sport all time: women’s synchronized swimming and that program’s 33 national titles.

Admittedly, measuring success of supporting women’s sports by national titles earned is probably not a fair measure, given there is just one champ per season per sport. However, the disparity between men’s and women’s sports should be telling.

For another perspective, Ohio State has found its way into the Director’s Cup standings in recent years, an award given for overall athletic success. While it’s not a direct reflection on women’s sports specifically (that would be the Capital One Cup for women’s sports), it does reflect well-roundedness in athletic departments. Ohio State finished in the top-10 five of the last six years.

Moreover it’s also not reasonable to say that Ohio State doesn’t invest in its women’s programs, which is one of the benefits of having one of the most profitable football programs in the nation. Unlike Stanford, which received significant flack for its move to cut 11 varsity teams (including women’s teams) during COVID, Ohio State did not find itself in that sort of position. Further, look at the investment in facilities like the Covelli Center, which, while supporting both men’s and women’s varsity sports, provide elite facilities for women’s volleyball, gymnastics, fencing and, occasionally, basketball.

Additionally, Ohio State as an athletic department is playing a huge role in supporting student athlete NIL deals — across the board, including through corporate ambassadorship programs and collectives with social benefits.In the first six months following rule changes in NIL, 220 student athletes made nearly $3 million in NIL deals at Ohio State.

Further, the Big Ten at large, while it once again went without a title in this year’s NCAA Tournament, had a strong showing from a competitive set of teams. These programs were anchored by actual star power (looking at you, Caitlin Clark), who raised the value of the league in what was already a banner year for women’s basketball across the board. The on-court product of women’s basketball is attracting eyeballs and advertisers, which builds a positively reinforcing cycle that strengthens the game.

Overall, these things take time, and perhaps even 50 years wasn’t enough. While Ohio State would seem to be moving in the right direction, perhaps there is greater opportunity to be made specific to women’s sports, including capitalizing on NIL for female athletes and increasing investment in women’s programs with championship potential.