Title IX's Other Effects: Do Sports Make Women Less Religious?

How does playing a sport in high school affect a woman after she has graduated? We know from Betsey Stevenson's 2010 study in The Review of Economics and Statistics that female former high school athletes tend to go further in school and make more money. But what about the effects on a woman's social life? Does she become less religious? Less likely to have children? If she does have children, is she more likely to raise them alone?

These are questions that Ian Ayres and I address in our recent study, "The Chastain Effect: Using Title IX to Measure the Causal Effect of Participating in High School Sports on Adult Women's Social Lives," published in The Journal of Socio-Economics. Our results suggest that participating in sports leads women to reject patriarchal institutions such as church and marriage—perhaps as a consequence of the confidence and independence that sports participation engenders.

We'll explain why in a moment, but first we have to explain how we went about estimating the effect of sports. This is more difficult than it sounds. One might think that researchers could just track women who played sports and women who did not, compare the two groups, and attribute the difference to athletics. The problem with this approach is that women choose to participate in sports, and their decision is likely a function of pre-existing individual characteristics. Some of these characteristics—race, socio-economic position, school quality—can be controlled for. Others—ambition, self-esteem, ability—cannot, because measures for such intangibles are not readily available.

The danger is that these unmeasurables affect not only a woman's decision to participate in sports, but also her behavior later in life. For example, an ambitious woman may be more likely to sign up for sports, as well as more likely to graduate from college. It'd be inaccurate to compare her to a less ambitious woman who did not participate in high school athletics and who dropped out of college and conclude that participating in sports helps women graduate from college. It may be the case that ambition, not sports, is responsible—or, at the very least, partially responsible.

Luckily, as Stevenson found, Title IX offers a sort of natural experiment in the effects of sports on women. This landmark piece of the educational amendments to the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress in 1972, and prohibited gender discrimination in federally funded educational institutions, including their athletics programs. States were required to provide girls with the same opportunities as boys to participate in sports. At the time that Title IX was passed, boys' rates of participation were far above girls'. Title IX successfully pressured states to raise female sports participation rates to existing male rates. Because all states had similarly low rates of female sports participation, the amount of pressure that Title IX placed on each one depended on the existing level of male sports participation: States with higher levels of male sports participation had more work to do to bring their female sports opportunities to the level of their men's. In some states, male sports participation rates were as low as 20 percent, while in others they were higher than 90 percent.

This means that there was significant variation in the change in the level of female sports participation following the passage of Title IX across states. States with pre-existing male rates of 20 percent experienced a smaller change in female sports participation than those with pre-existing rates of 90 percent. As a result, women in states with 90 percent male participation who went to high school after Title IX were more likely to participate in sports than those living in states with 20 percent male participation.

It is this likelihood—rather than participation itself—that Stevenson utilized, and that we did as well. Using individual level data from the General Social Survey, we compared the social outcomes of women in states that experienced a greater change in the rate of female sports participation with those in states with smaller changes. Most importantly, we use the pre-existing level of male participation to proxy for the state-level changes rather than using the changes themselves, thereby relying on variation that women do not choose, and avoiding self-selection bias.

What did we find?

First, the sportier the women in a state, the less godly they are. Specifically, a 10 percentage point increase in state-level female sports participation generates a 5 to 6 percentage point rise in the rate of female secularism.

Second, the sportier the women in a state, the more likely they are to have a child. A 10 percentage point increase in state-level female sports participation generates a 5 percentage point increase in the proportion of women who are mothers.

Finally, the sportier the women in a state, the more likely they are to become single mothers. A 10 percentage point increase in state-level female sports participation generates a 6 percentage point increase in the proportion of mothers who, at the time they are interviewed, are single.

Our read of these results is that they "paint a picture of heightened individuality," as we wrote in our paper. This shouldn't be terribly surprising—it's in keeping with the idea of sports as a force for individual empowerment, even within a team context. By making women more confident and independent, sports lead them to reject traditionally male-dominated institutions, such as organized religion and marriage.

One complication is our finding that women in states with high rates of female sports participation are more likely to have children. One might expect empowered women to choose career over children, though it's plausible that a woman's increased social capital might lead her more readily into relationships and, eventually, motherhood. Ultimately, further research is necessary to determine the causal mechanisms behind our results—especially child bearing, which seems more difficult to explain—and to determine whether the results are interrelated or independent.

At any rate, the individuality hypothesis explains our title: It's a reference to Brandi Chastain, who famously scored the winning penalty kick in the women's World Cup in 1999. What was her first move? To rip off her jersey and—to the shock of many—expose her bra to the world. And then she dropped to the grass, alone, and savored her individual victory.


Phoebe Clarke graduated from Yale College in 2009 and is currently a student at Yale Law School. She grew up in the Adirondacks, where she spent her summers swimming and hiking and her winters competing in freestyle skiing.

Image by John W. Tomac.