Ruling Reshapes Gender Outlook

US Supreme Court forces colleges to rewrite policies giving parity to women's sports

Ever since Brown University refused to pay for Lisa Stern's tumbling, there have been rumblings far beyond the gymnasium here.

On April 21, the United States Supreme Court left intact a lower-court ruling that the Providence, R.I., school had discriminated against women athletes under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. The law bans gender discrimination in all federally funded education programs, but its impact has been most visible in sports.

Brown expanded its women's sports offerings after passage of Title IX, but in 1991 it stopped supporting women's gymnastics and volleyball teams. Although it also dropped two men's programs, only 38 percent of the athletic slots in the school went to women, while women made up 51 percent of the student population. The court ruling said schools must offer women and men opportunities to participate in substantial proportion to their undergraduate enrollments.

As a high school senior in Phoenix, Ms. Stern had been looking forward to life as a freshman and gymnast at Brown, and had turned down other schools' offers. But then the Ivy League school informed her it was withdrawing funding for women's gymnastics. Stern and senior Amy Cohen rallied other female athletes to sue the university. Five years later, the court's ruling will not catapult Stern or Cohen back onto the balancing beam. But the aftershock has begun to reshape the gender outlook of collegiate sports.

Brown recently tabled a compliance plan with the court. If the plan is approved, 53 percent of the athletes at Brown next year would be female and 47 percent male, closely approximating next year's student body ratio.

"I take the ruling as a clear signal that the importance at this time is to comply with Title IX and its promise of fairness," says Lynette Labinger, the lead lawyer in Cohen vs. Brown. "For many years colleges have been spending time and effort to get around legal requirements."

It's the trend of the future, says Barbara Hedges, president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. Many schools will be rewriting their sports policies.

Just a week after the court's ruling, a National Collegiate Athletic Association survey indicated that it would take at least another decade for women's athletic programs to attain equality with men's. Since 1992, it said, men's participation had fallen by 10 percent while women registered a six percent increase.

"If you take [that growth rate] and try to run it out," says NCAA executive director Cedric Dempsey, "it would take about 10 to 12 years before we reach equity."

Of the 305 Division I schools, only 28 are anywhere near gender equity, a recent USA Today study found.

Opponents contend that Title IX sets up "discriminatory quotas." At the heart of the disagreement is a three-part test for compliance.

*Proportionality: Is participation in sports proportionate to student enrollment? For example, if half the student body is women, then half the athletes must be women.

*Does the school have a "history and continuing practice of program expansion" for women athletes?

*Are the "interests and abilities" of women athletes fully accommodated?

A passing grade in any of the three areas qualifies as compliance. Sports commentators say it's the main reason for the snail-paced progress of the 25-year-old law.

Brown argued that by nature boys like sports better than girls and the percentage of women athletes only needs to be in line with the number of women students "interested" in sports. The first Circuit Court of Appeals said it views the argument that women are less interested in sports with "great suspicion.... Interest and ability rarely develop in a vacuum; they evolve as a function of opportunity and experience."

"What's happening here is an assault against common sense," Brown President Vartan Gregorian testified before a house subcommittee in 1995. "If Brown with its robust program of women's sports is not in compliance with Title IX, it is hard to imagine how any institution is today.... "

Much of the imbalance in the ratio of male and female athletes is a result of football. On average a football team has 90-plus players. If Brown had dropped its football program it would have more than matched Title IX's requirements.

Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, says that football programs will be an inviting target at schools that fear a lawsuit.

"There is no comparable women's sport [in number of participants]," Mr. Teaff says, who predicts that Title IX will continue to be challenged. "We must not deny male participation for female participation."

Even with fat budgets, football, sports commentators say, is not in any immediate danger. The minor sports are: The UCLA men's swim team, a national powerhouse not many years ago, has been axed. In 1976, 138 NCAA member institutions offered varsity men's gymnastics programs. In 1996, only 28 such programs remained. Men's wrestling showed a similar decline.

To offset the extra baggage football carries, academic institutions are introducing big roster women's sports such as crew.

"Women's sports don't need a lot of money," says Cohen, who on Memorial Day weekend will return to Brown for her fifth reunion.

"I can put a positive spin on it and say that it taught me a lot," Stern says about the experience.

"I've learned to deal with people and listen to both sides of an issue. I could see where they were coming from, but I could not agree with that."

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