Be Fair to Female Athletes

"If you let me play, I will like myself more. I will have more self-confidence.... I will learn what it means to be strong. If you let me play sports...."

That Nike ad copy, featuring young girls, foreshadowed the encouraging message recently sent to colleges and universities, first by a federal district court in Providence, R.I., then by an appeals court in Boston, and now by the Supreme Court: Give women the same chance as men to participate in college athletics.

That's what a group of female athletes at Brown University asked for in 1992 when they filed suit, based on Title IX of the federal education amendments, to have women's gymnastics and volleyball reinstated as varsity sports. Brown had reduced those sports (along with men's golf and water polo) to club-team status as part of a budget-cutting program. The women argued that because men at Brown already enjoyed the benefits of a larger share of university resources, the demotion was not fair.

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Brown countered that it was meeting the terms of Title IX, which bars discrimination based on gender at any school receiving federal funds, because it was accommodating the "relative interests and abilities" of its male and female students. In other words, women weren't as interested in sports as men.

The federal district court disagreed. It found Brown in violation of Title IX, noting, among other things, the disproportionate varsity slots available to men (62 percent) and women (38 percent) on a campus that is 51 percent female. The appeals court agreed. The Supreme Court, without comment, let the ruling stand.

Those who say this decision in particular and Title IX in general amount to quotas for women aren't looking at the whole picture. "Proportionality" isn't the only way for colleges and universities to comply with Title IX. They need only to demonstrate that they "fully meet the needs and abilities of their female athletes" or show "a history of program expansion for female athletes." Brown, the court found, did neither.

Instead, the school relied largely on its argument that women are less interested in participating in sports than men. Like the appeals court, we view that "with great suspicion." Perhaps Nike could add another line to its advertisement: "If you let me play sports, I will play sports."

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