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Has equality in sports gone too far?

A federal panel mulls changes to Title IX, which has remade women's sports over 30 years.

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"We've lost over 434 college wrestling programs since the early 1970s, not all to Title IX, but a good number of programs have been," says Michael Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association.

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Women's groups counter that Title IX isn't to blame for the cuts. Instead, they point to big-money college sports, like football, that often squeeze small-scale men's sports like swimming and gymnastics.

Hobson's choices

Just what is behind the elimination of athletic programs is often difficult to determine and draws differing views from even the athletes themselves. Take the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. In April, the school announced it would axe its trophy-winning men's gymnastics team as well as its men's and women's golf programs. University officials cited an out-of-control athletic budget as the culprit.

But even though Title IX was not officially mentioned, many athletes blame the law anyway, including William Callahan, a junior who competes on floor exercise, parallel bars, and the high bar. It was tough for him to hear that his team would get cut, in part because his girlfriend is a female gymnast whose team survived. "It seems like we have stupid sports up here just to compensate for Title IX requirement," he says. "We have women's crew up here where the lakes freeze over. We recently built a women's hockey rink right next to the men's. I don't understand it."

As it happens, his sport may survive. Mr. Callahan says fund-raising efforts have earned $2.2 million, with just $500,000 more needed to keep gymnastics and the other sports going. He adds that he has to watch his sharp Title IX comments because his girlfriend says the law is good.

Ms. Samuels of the National Women's Law Center argues that Title IX has actually helped male athletes. While conceding some men's teams have been dropped, others have been added, so that the overall participation by male athletes and even the number of teams have grown, she says.

In 1981-'82, there were 64,000 (28 percent) women playing college varsity sports compared to 167,000 (72 percent) men, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Twenty years later in 2000-2001, there were 149,000 (42 percent) women and 207,000 (58 percent) men.

A major criticism, however, is that men's teams are being wiped out. Yet a March 2001 report to Congress by the General Accounting Office shows that between 1981-1982 and 1998-1999 the number of men's teams showed a slight increase (0.4 percent).

Still, women's teams easily outpaced the men, surging 66 percent. Today, the number of women's teams at four-year schools outnumbers male teams 9,479 to 9,149. More men still participate overall because many traditionally male sports, like football, have bigger rosters.

One school's solution

To navigate the requirements of Title IX and limited budgets, colleges are devising delicate compromises. In the mid-1990s, officials at the University of Rhode Island faced a quandary: the school had about 100 more male athletes than female athletes. Either it would have to add more women's teams, or cut male teams to comply with Title IX - or risk losing federal funds.

So the school trimmed a little from each of the men's sports and added a women's rowing team in 1997, says Lauren Anderson, associate director of athletic programs. Today women's rowing, with about 50 on the team, has brought the school closer to meeting Title IX proportionality rules. Many women have found the experience transforming.

"Sports are just something everybody needs," says Megan Barnard, a rower on a scholarship who gets up at 5 a.m. to practice. "When I look back at it, it completes my day and makes my day worthwhile. I wouldn't want to be here without it."

At St. John's, the compromises haven't come so easily. The percentage of women at the New York campus is growing every year. It hit 58 percent in 2002, making proportionality a difficult - and moving - target. "We must focus on those programs that reflect the changing makeup of our student body," said the Rev. Donald Harrington, president of St. John's in a recent statement.