Physical education does not have an admirable history in terms of equal opportunity and access for girls and women. As we have discussed many times, the education amendments of 1972 included a section commonly referred to as Title IX, a federal anti-discrimination law that guarantees equal opportunity for girls and women. Nowhere has Title IX been more clearly applicable than in physical education and sport.

Title IX made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex in areas such as scheduling, teaching assignments, budgeting, and use of facilities. Coeducational teaching became the norm rather than the exception. Students were required to be grouped in terms of ability rather than of gender.

Requiring different activities for girls and boys was not permitted, and rules had to be applied equally to both sexes.

Why was Title IX so badly needed in physical education and sport? The answer is straightforward: Physical education and sport had long histories of inequity as regards girls’ and women’s participation. The following illustration makes the point.


It is mid-autumn. The next physical-education unit for the fifth-and sixth-graders is about to begin. The unit is flag football. The teacher describes what will happen to the students. Players will be placed on teams.

They can choose a team name and make up some of their own plays. Skills of centering, catching, throwing, dodging, and blocking will be practiced. A tournament will be held. The boys will be divided into four teams. The girls will be organized into cheerleading groups!

The messages of this kind of teaching are clear. Football is clearly a boys sport fast, rough, competitive. Girls can occupy only a supportive, non-participant role in such sports. The instruction and practice will be aimed toward the boys. The girls can have fun doing their cheers.

Although these kinds of procedures are strictly forbidden under Title IX, they still go on in some places. The discriminatory- practices may be more subtle than those in the vignette, yet they still exist. The fact is that physical education has been a place where gender stereotypes have traditionally been reinforced.


Evidence suggests strongly, and my experience in high schools very much supports the evidence, that girls get less opportunity than boys in many physical-education classes, like it less, and are bored by it.

Compounding the problem is the evidence which shows that since Title IX was passed the percentage of women who teach high school physical education has dropped steadily.

While there has been an overall loss of high-school physical-education positions, indicating the general problems of the subject, the reduction in women’s positions has been much greater than in men’s positions.

The problems secondary physical education has encountered over the past several decades reduced requirements, disaffected students, a generally “bad press” will not be resolved unless and until physical education becomes a place where girls are treated justly.


Where their opportunities to learn and grow are equal to those of boys, and where their own interests and needs are taken into account in both curriculum and instruction.

Physical educators, male and female, have a responsibility to help boys and girls overcome gender stereotypes that exist in society and to provide an equitable physical education for all students.