WASHINGTON — THE biggest rivalry in college sports? Some might argue Duke-North Carolina in basketball or Miami-Florida State in football. But neither is as spirited as the collegiate gender bout that raged on Capitol Hill this week.
One side of this congressional rugby scrum claims women still get short-changed when it comes to sports funding.
The other argues that so-called affirmative action for athletes is jeopardizing budgets for men's teams and unfairly tilting the playing field toward women.
Behind the raised cleats is something called Title IX -- a federal statute that bans sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal money.
The skirmishing is not new. But a Republican-controlled Congress may give opponents the upper hand for the first time since the law was passed in 1972.
''Many people view the shift in Congress as a chance to open issues that had been resolved,'' says Marsha Greenberger, co-president of the Washington-based National Women's Law Center, which has handled Title IV cases. ''But, I do believe ... they will be repudiated.''
Ms. Greenberger's confidence isn't shared by all Title IX supporters. They worry that the antiquota and antibig-government sentiments fueled by the GOP resurgence will aid forces hoping to weaken the law.
Sensing the shift in momentum, Rep. Pat Williams (D) of Montana warned his colleagues during a hearing this week against changing the law, saying ''many of your voters have daughters.'' Congress is being pushed by both sides to reform Title IV.
Feds poor sports managers
Some coaches and alumni say the law is creating reverse discrimination by forcing resource-tight administrations to eliminate men's teams in order to add new women's squads. They find Republican allies in Congress when they say the federal government should not be micro-managing college sport programs.
Title IX supporters call such contentions a diversion to save the budgets of the most entrenched, prestigious and resource-bloated of men's sports: football and basketball. No school has lost federal funds for failing to comply with Title IX. But critics say that lack of enforcement is why a growing number of women students are opting to file lawsuits -- 25 have filed to date -- charging schools with noncompliance.
The latest suit was filed Tuesday against Syracuse University by eight women seeking to have lacrosse raised from club to varsity status now instead of over a planned two-year period.
In the approximately half dozen decisions since 1987, federal judges have ruled against schools. The most recent came on March 29 against Brown University. While it has 18 women's programs compared to 16 for men, the judge found that female athletes comprise only about 40 percent of Brown's 900 varsity athletes compared to 51 percent of the student body. He gave Brown 60 days in which to bring its programs into Title IX compliance.
Brown is appealing the decision, claiming that it was based on only ''proportionality,'' one of three measures of compliance. The decision, says the school, ignored the other tests, any one of which can satisfy the law: the level of students interest in participating in athletics and the school's history of efforts to meet Title IX.
There are not enough women interested in the athletic programs to allow the school to meet the proportionality test, says Brown President Vartan Gregorian. Therefore, he said, with no funds available to add more women's sports, the only way Brown can comply is by slashing men's programs.
Critics contend that this is becoming a national trend in non-revenue producing sports such as wrestling, swimming and gymnastics. ''While I want all schools to comply with Title IX, I strongly believe that the elimination of opportunities for anyone was not the intent of Title IX. These lost opportunities are what I call the unintended consequences of Title IX,'' says Rep. Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois, a former coach.
Representative Hastert and others argue that the law's ''proportionality'' rule has become paramount, but is flawed. They say it fails to account for a lower interest in sports among women that makes it difficult for a school to ensure their participation at the same proportion as their percentage of student body. They also contend the rule fails to account for the huge number of men football and basketball players.''There is no other sport that has the same numbers as football has,'' says Sam Baker of the College Football Association.
But, Title IX supporters call such arguments a dodge to protect excessive budgets of men's football and basketball. They contend that savings in football and basketball budgets could be used to fund new women's programs without the need to cut less glamorous men's teams.
High coaches salaries
They contend that many college coaches have salaries higher than their college presidents. Collegiate football teams enjoy expensive privileges such as ''country club locker rooms'' and first class hotel accommodations the night before home games.
Title IX supporters contend that many schools that have successfully met the law's gender equity requirements without hurting their football and basketball programs and chopping other men's sports programs.
''Progress is being made toward achieving the goal (of gender equity), but much needs to be done,'' says NCAA Executive Director Cedric Dempsey.
But how further progress will be achieved remains subject to intense debate.