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Sports equality for girls must go beyond gender, UB Law professor says

Dionne L. Koller wants to change how the country thinks about sports — through the law.

Dionne L. Koller

An associate professor who directs the Center for Sport and the Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, Koller participated last month in a contest to suggest ways to improve upon Title IX, the 1972 amendment to the Civil Rights Act that banned gender discrimination in federally assisted education programs and activities.

The National Women’s Hall of Fame sponsored the contest in honor of the Title IX’s 40th anniversary on June 23. Koller’s proposal was to include more girls of all backgrounds in sports at an early age, to remove barriers that often have nothing to do with gender.

While Title IX has allowed more opportunities for girls to play sports, she said, it has mostly benefited upper-middle-class white women.

“Because Title IX focuses on gender equality and nothing else, it really has nothing to say about who gets left out,” Koller said.

Her proposal, “Guarantee That Sports In Schools Be For All And Not The Lucky Few,” recommended federal legislation that would require all public middle and high schools to require sports for all students. The students could pick from a wide variety of sports, but everyone would have to participate as part of the educational program.

Sports would not just be for those who are the most talented, but for everyone, creating an intramural-like system at young ages, Koller said. All girls at all income levels could play early in their lives, giving them a chance to eventually play at the college level.

“There is something wrong with the system,” Koller said. “I would like to see a de-emphasis on the winning-at-all-costs model and more emphasis on well-being and social connection.”

Koller was a gymnast through high school and considers herself a beneficiary of Title IX, which inspired her to write about it. She initially published an article in the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law on how Title IX does not benefit low-income minority women.

She took that idea and turned it into a concrete proposal to raise money and run a pilot program in Baltimore for the contest. Though she did not win — in online voting, she took fifth place out of 17 entries — Koller was still invited to the awards ceremony in Washington in June.

Koller planned to talk to legislators about her ideas at the ceremony and will continue to speak at events and write about it.

“I’m trying to get us out of the gender equity mind-frame discussion in schools, though we have not achieved that,” Koller said. “There’s work to be done there. I want to continue to urge people to reframe the issue.”