Has equality in sports gone too far?
A federal panel mulls changes to Title IX, which has remade women's sports over 30 years.
St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y., recently decided to drop its football team. True, the small college is not a gridiron powerhouse: You won't see it battling for a national championship in the Sugar Bowl.Skip to next paragraph
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But the cut is serious, nonetheless. The official reason for the move: Title IX - the landmark 1972 federal law that mandated gender equality in education and has had a striking impact on college sports.
While the university also trimmed some other male and female athletic teams, school officials say they needed to drop the 62-member football team to meet a specific test of equality under Title IX: fielding numbers of men and women athletes in proportion to the student body - which has a growing female majority.
The issue of proportionality lies at the heart of an emerging fight over the controversial 30-year-old Title IX law that has already had a dramatic impact on the economic and social culture of American higher education.
The statute has unquestionably produced many new sports opportunities for women. Yet detractors say misinterpretation of the law has also needlessly resulted in the elimination of men's sports teams and fewer opportunities for male athletes.
Now a national blue-ribbon panel that has been reviewing Title IX is about to issue its recommendations - and the lobbying is escalating on both sides.
Some expect the commission, named by Department of Education (DOE) Secretary Roderick Paige, to propose rewriting certain regulations, including the key proportionality test, to make it easier for schools to comply.
Any rollback in the law's reach, or new flexibility built into it, would be welcomed by many coaches involved in smaller-scale men's sports like wrestling, which are often the first cut in funding battles over athletics.
But women's groups, which consider Title IX one of the seminal gender achievements of the past three decades, are mounting a fierce drive to keep the measure intact. They're worried about the makeup of the commission. They argue that the 15-member panel has 10 representatives from NCAA Division 1A schools - institutions typically having football and basketball programs that make it difficult to meet Title IX's proportionality test.
"The system is being rigged to provide greater advantage to an already advantaged population" of male athletes, says Athena Yiamouyiannis, director of the National Association for Girls and Women in Sports.
Women's groups, too, are pushing Title IX as a civil-rights issue and thus are hoping the Trent Lott debacle on segregation will prevent the White House from revising any enforcement rules. "I hope the Bush administration takes from this episode with Senator Lott the understanding that civil rights is of critical importance to massive number of Americans," says Jocelyn Samuels of the National Women's Law Center. "It's not just a bunch of radical feminists."
Department of Education officials and commission members, however, deny the charges of bias. The work and the process have been "exemplary," said Ted Leland, athletic director of Stanford University and a co-chair of the Title IX review commission.
There's little argument that the impact of Title IX has been enormous. In the decades since it was enacted, the law has transformed opportunities for women at all levels, but particularly in college.
Without the law, there might not have been a Mia Hamm, the world-famous soccer star, who honed her skills in college. Women's college soccer has soared from just 1,855 participants in 1981-82 to 18,548 in 2000-2001, a 10-fold leap.
Meanwhile, some argue that many men's teams have been dropped in recent decades to meet the proportionality test - which they see as a form of reverse discrimination. Indeed, a group of college wrestling coaches is suing the DOE to change its proportionality requirement - even if the commission doesn't ultimately recommend such change. While many of these critics support the progress of women's and girl's sports, they believe Title IX is being unfairly enforced.