Sports, Rights, and Bodies As Battlegrounds: Roe v. Wade and Title IX

Roe v. Wade was overturned just after the celebrations for Title IX's 50th anniversary. We are talking about bodies, and we are talking about control.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

50 years ago this week, a series of civil rights laws called the Education Amendments — laws that included, almost as a footnote, protection from sex-based discrimination by institutions receiving federal funding — were enacted. 49 years ago, the Supreme Court decided that most people seeking abortions were protected in their decision to do so by their rights to privacy.

Today, one day after almost unanimous celebrations of that law — Title IX — and how much progress has been made since its passage, that Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, was overturned. It’s the kind of timing that would be funny if it weren’t so horrifying, a perfect illustration of how delusional it can be to consider history as a linear upward progression. 

There is no overarching logic, no coherent worldview — just people who don’t see any contradiction between encouraging their young daughters to play sports and fiercely campaigning to prevent them from being able to make the most personal, monumental decisions of their lives. We can, and have, moved easily forward and backwards at the same time, towards greater inclusion and greater cruelty at once. 

Yet there is a contradiction in this week’s celebrations and tragedy. We are talking about bodies, and we are talking about control. Non-cis men did not start playing sports with Title IX. They had been playing in various contexts for decades — even if they were often treated as a curiosity, it’s not as though that changed after Title IX (hello, Lingerie Football League). 

They were only kept from doing so, whether explicitly or by widely accepted taboo, as a means of control. Protecting the mythology of a deeply cisgendered status quo allowed men, individually and as a collective, to maintain authority. If women were physically and mentally lesser, they could hope for nothing more than to serve. 

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Sports served, and serve, as a concrete challenge to that myth. Non-cis men can claim their strength, their agency — can prove to themselves and anyone else that, given the chance, their bodies and minds are capable or even extraordinary in specific terms, not abstract ones. You can’t take away a race time or bench press weight or number or runs scored, and that’s one reason why women playing sports was so terrifying to those in power. You let people feel good about themselves and who knows what they’re capable of.

That’s why even before anyone had heard about Title IX, sports were gaining steam as a battleground in the women’s liberation movement. Hail Mary, by Frankie de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, chronicles a women’s football league that started in 1967 — long before Title IX had begun to impact the sports world. As just one of many examples, a grumpy column in the Asbury Park Evening Press, published the week before Title IX was enacted, lamented the increasing numbers of women fighting their way into the sports world. “Women’s Lib is being used as license for the female of the species to become vulgar, uncouth, barbaric and practically anything but ladylike,” the columnist wrote about women golfers, football players and wrestlers, all active pre-Title IX (a lovely letter to the editor responded, “You’re correct, they aren’t ladylike — they’re human”). 

All this is to say, even before they were claimed as a feminist cause, women in sports were perceived as a direct attack on men’s supposed supremacy — mostly because they allowed women to claim agency over their own bodies. Abortion, of course, is the most important way a woman can control her body, and so it is no surprise that both fights wound up a part of the same women’s liberation battle. Non-cis men were shouting across the branches of the U.S. government to no longer just be a means to an end, but the end itself.

When I watch non-cis men play sports, I feel a kind of deep, primal joy at witnessing their strength and their skill — their full embodiment of themselves as individuals, not dependents. That strength is enabled, in part, by being able to choose when and how to become a parent. Finely tuning one’s body to achieve a particular greatness requires being able to control as much of it as you possibly can. Without being able to seek necessary healthcare, that ability is greatly diminished.

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The overlap between those who want to ban abortions and those who want to prevent trans people from participating in sports is no surprise — it comes back to many of the same questions about bodies and agency and who gets to be powerful and how an imagined hierarchy is preserved. It’s the same kind of violent ignorance of what it takes to exist as a non-cis man in the world, and the way individual bodily agency is an integral part of personhood.

As we celebrate the ways in which Title IX secured rights and opportunities for women in and out of athletics, we must consider how we can best use those rights — some of our few remaining ones — to insist on the personhood, rights and agency of all women and trans and gender non-conforming people. Abortion is healthcare, and as much a core human right as making ourselves as strong and quick and fierce as we can. 

We must not over-rely on institutions — a core element of sports, and a central hindrance to their power as a space for true advocacy and inclusion. We will refuse to add caveats to or draw lines around our celebration, and insist on real, ambitious liberation for everyone. It begins and ends with our bodies.