This year marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the landmark Civil Rights legislation, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, that opened the door for two generations of American female athletes to participate in sports. There has been tremendous growth in women’s team sports in the United States at all levels of competition.
American female athletes can now envision playing professional basketball, softball and soccer. In the summer of 2011, American sports fans were temporarily transfixed by the U.S. women’s national soccer team and its run to a second place finish in the World Cup.
Yet today fewer American women than at perhaps any time since the 1950s are considered among the world’s elite in individual sports such as track and field, tennis and golf. Indeed, renowned sports writer Frank Deford recently asked readers of his column on SI.com how many of them knew who Victoria Azarenka and Yani Tseng are?
The answers are that the former is the world’s top ranked women’s tennis player and the latter is the top-ranked women’s golfer in the world. The only American female who is capturing sports headlines for individual accomplishments in international competitions is Alpine skier, Lindsay Vonn, who won the World Cup skiing title in the recently concluded 2011-2012 season.
Deford notes that it is a mystery as to why, at a time when more and more American women are competing at higher levels of sports, this nation can’t seem to produce champions in the popular international women’s sports.
This may be especially hard to understand when one considers that in team sports American women typically only earn a fraction of what their male counterparts earn. In individual sports, prize monies have evened out over the years between men and women and the highest earning female athletes are found in the individual sports. Given this fact, why aren’t more American women gravitating to those sports?
In women’s tennis, there is currently only one American ranked in the top 25 in the world—Serena Williams, who is ranked No. 9. In 1970, when the women’s pro tennis association was formed, Billie Jean King led a group of nine female players who attended a press conference announcing the formation of the Virginia Slims Women’s Tour. Of that group, seven were Americans. In just over 40 years, it seems that the U.S. has bequeathed women’s tennis to the rest of the world. In fact, European players dominate the top tier of women’s tennis, while Asian players are coming to dominate the top tier of women’s golf.
Taiwanese golfer Yani Tseng has dominated the LPGA Tour for the past two years like no other athlete has dominated any sport. Several of the other top women golfers hail from South Korea. Yet few people in the U.S. even know who these women are. Ratings for women’s golf events on TV rank right down there with ratings for Australian rules football.
There are those who feel that young girls from modest backgrounds in Eastern Europe are more likely to spend hours on a tennis court perfecting shots and that South Korean girls are more culturally disposed to practice hitting golf shots than well-to-do American girls with cell phones and tablets.
There are many reasons offered for what is happening in today’s sports scene. There is no disputing the fact that U.S. women are no longer the dominant force in world soccer as they were 15 years ago. American women no longer absolutely dominate international softball. Title IX may have led to many more young women taking up sports, but paradoxically it has also led to fewer American women being considered as elite athletes on the international sports stage.
Issues such as the growth of women as active participants in sports, both as competitors and as administrators, are concerns at the United States Sports Academy. Frank Deford was the second winner in 1985 of the Ronald Reagan Media Award presented annually by the Academy. He followed the first winner, Howard Cosell. Mr. Deford has had a long and distinguished career that began when he was a regular writer for Sports Illustrated. The above article contains a link to the piece he wrote for Si.com. For more information on Academy programs or on its Awards of Sport go to http://www.ussa.edu/.