Fairness on the Playing Fields

Advocates of expanded athletic opportunities for women are breathing a little easier. They had worried that the Bush administration would weaken enforcement of a 30-year-old law prohibiting gender discrimination at US schools and colleges that receive federal funds.

But this week, the Bush Justice Department chose to oppose a lawsuit challenging the law, known as Title IX. That was the right decision. The law's impact in opening doors for underserved women athletes is undeniable (see story, page 1).

There is another side to the story, however, as the suit being brought by the National Wrestling Coaches Association and other groups illustrates. They contend that enforcement of Title IX has resulted in reverse discrimination against male athletes. Indisputably, the law has caused the demise of many men's programs in such sports as wrestling, gymnastics, and swimming.

The engine behind these changes is Title IX's "proportionality rule," which states that one way schools can comply with the law is to have approximate parity between the percentage of women in a student body and the percentage engaged in varsity sports.

As women's teams have been added, men's teams are often dropped because of budget constraints. Critics of Title IX say this is a quota system that works against gender equality.

That's too harsh a judgment. The law has simply forced schools to rethink their athletic programs. Sadly, adjusting the balance to provide more fairness for women has inevitably swung some resources away from so-called "low profile" men's sports.

One way to free up some resources and provide more fairness all around would be to deemphasize the ultra-high-profile men's sports – notably football – that eat up the lion's share of funding at many schools.

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