By Paula Scraba, Rachel Kimmel and Denny Wilkins
The lacrosse ball soared through the air. Thump. It landed neatly into the net of Caroline Paterno’s lacrosse stick. Heart beating fast, she sprinted up the field, passing her opponents. She lifted her arms back and took a shot at the goal.
Sports run in Paterno’s blood. For four years, she played on the women’s lacrosse team at St. Bonaventure University. Her grandfather, Joe Paterno, is the most victorious coach in NCAA Division I football history, coaching for the Penn State Nittany Lions. But Paterno’s athletic genes don’t stop there.
“When you have a mother that played tennis in college, and you had a grandmother that also played athletics in college, sports were always an option,” said Paterno.
Her maternal grandmother, Arlene Kdankiewicz, graduated high school in 1948 and continued her education at Tufts University. Her career in athletics as a tennis player looked much different than the men’s sports careers of her time.
Women in athletics did not always have the same opportunities as men. Congress passed Title IX as part of the Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibited sex-based discrimination in any education program.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, but even with a law in place, women still experience sex-based inequalities in their collegiate and interscholastic sports.
According to a report from the Women’s Sports Foundation, 87% of NCAA schools offer disproportionally higher rates of athletic opportunities to men compared to the schools’ enrollment. This should make these schools noncompliant with Title IX, but the law allows for disproportionate representation through its three-part test.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, a school is compliant if male and female athletes are proportionate to enrollment; or schools are expanding participation opportunities for women; or schools are accommodating the interests of women. The three-part test still allows room for more representation of one sex over the other.
“Back then, most of the people that were in Congress, or the Senate were male, right. So, you have an inherent group of humans that are making this,” said Shana Levine, a lawyer in California. She works as a senior associate for 3 Fold Group, a consulting firm that deals with Title IX and gender equity in NCAA Division III schools.
Levine said Title IX has provided opportunities for women, but it still has room for improvement like the lack of women coaches, access to athletic resources, and limiting women of color and transgender women in sports.
In 1970, before Title IX, women made up 90% of head coaching positions for women’s college teams, according to the foundation. By 2017 the percentage had dropped to 40% because of pay increases that attracted more male coaches to coach women’s teams. The absence of women coaches creates a deficit of female role models for young, aspiring women.
To encourage female coaches, the foundation created the Tara VanDerveer Fund, a mentoring program, to support women coaches with living expenses and professional development.
Not only do women athletes lack women coaching models, but limited training facilities also create a challenge.
“If a small high school has one gym or one outdoor field, who’s going to take priority? It’s the boys,” said Dr. Neal Johnson, president emeritus of Special Olympics New York, Inc.
Limited facilities, paying to compete, and the quality of coaching can affect young girls’ opportunities in sports.
“It’s such a shame when you see these star athlete high school players who should be getting top looks at Division I schools or any schools, but who can’t necessarily afford to be on the right club team,” said Paterno.
Women and girls of color receive fewer athletic opportunities. A report from the foundation said the drop-out rate is two times higher for girls of color in urban and rural centers than for suburban white girls.
Title IX will continue to see growth and changes in the coming years regarding transgender athletes competing in women’s sports.
“The NCAA wouldn’t address the issue. They’re the organization responsible for intercollegiate athletics. If they wouldn’t make a decision or determination on the issue, they backed out of it,” said Johnson.
Though Title IX still has ways to go in ending sex-based discrimination, the 50-year-old law has made a difference for women and girls. Young women like Paterno can play the sport they love while receiving an education to build their future.
“I don’t think I would be the person I am today,” said Paterno.
She said playing sports has made her into a leader and boosted her confidence to tackle other opportunities outside of athletics.
Paterno will attend Penn State University to receive her master’s degree in public policy. She said her future is bright for the opportunities ahead.
The lacrosse ball slammed into the back of the net. A goal for Caroline Paterno.
Paula Scraba is an associate professor in the Physical Education Department at St. Bonaventure University. Rachel Kimmel is a 2022 graduate of the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure. Denny Wilkins is a professor in the Jandoli School.