TITLE IX of the federal education amendments, passed in 1972, barred gender discrimination at schools that receive federal aid. But that didn't stop athletic departments at colleges and universities from devoting most of their resources - from playing fields to scholarships to salaries - to men's sports.
Most college athletes, after all, were men. They were clearly more interested in sports than women were. That, at least, was the rationale.
More than two decades later, however, such reasoning is in retreat before an onrush of legal actions taken by women who are not content to let traditional ideas about a secondary role in athletics go unchallenged. Among them:
* In late June, Sanya Tyler, coach of the women's basketball team at Howard University in Washington, was awarded $1.06 million after she sued the school under Title IX and the federal Equal Pay Act. Though her job description was nearly identical to that of the men's basketball coach, she earned $34,000 a year less than he did and didn't have free use of a car, as he did.
* Brown University students filed a class-action suit, based on Title IX, in April 1992 to have women's gymnastics and volleyball reinstated as varsity sports. The school had reduced those sports to club-team status as part of a budget-cutting program. Last November, a United States district court judge ruled in favor of the students, a decision that was upheld by a US court of appeals panel in April.
* A suit filed by women soccer players at Auburn University in Alabama was settled out of court, with the university agreeing to sponsor a varsity team this fall, build a new field, and pay $140,000 in damages and legal fees (See story, right).
Nearly a dozen other cases are in various stages of discovery or trial. Among the institutions being taken to court are the California state university system, Colorado State University, University of Texas, Indiana University, and State University of New York, Oswego.
"Only in recent years have the implications of [Title IX] been fully understood," says Debbie Brake, a staff attorney with the National Women's Law Center in Washington. "Cases in this area for female plaintiffs have been overwhelmingly successful."
The hottest area of Title IX litigation, Ms. Brake says, is participation at the varsity level, with the scholarships, recruitment, equipment, and top-level coaching included in that designation. Among National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) schools, male varsity athletes outnumber women 2 to 1. On average, however, enrollment of men and women is equal - a fact that generates the "proportionality" issue currently being debated within the association.
The preliminary report of an NCAA task force on gender equity recently stated: "The comparison of the numbers of male and female athletes with their proportions in the undergraduate student population is the benchmark in assessing equal opportunity and should be the goal toward which each institution is moving."
The task force's work represents "an evolutionary process, a first step on the part of the NCAA to wrestle with the problem," says James J. Whalen, president of Ithaca College in upstate New York and co-chair of the panel. He calls the report, a final version of which will be presented to the NCAA Council in early August, a "good statement of principles," but it will have to wait until the full meeting of the NCAA next January to be voted into effect.
That shouldn't imply a leisurely approach to the issue, however. "It looks to me like people are going to have to get their acts together, or the courts, or Congress, will do it for them," Mr. Whalen says. Another factor is the probability of a more activist Office of Civil Rights (OCR) within the US Education Department under President Clinton.
Some schools aren't waiting for a prod from Washington. The University of Iowa, for example, is committed to achieving by 1997 athletic participation and scholarship levels for women that reflect its 50-percent female enrollment. "For a long time," says Ann Rhodes, vice president for university relations at the university, "we thought we were in compliance with Title IX because we have the same number of women's sports as men's sports." But recent court cases, along with standards set by the OCR, made it
clear that levels of student participation, not the numbers of sports, would be the key to compliance, she explains.
The real controversy at the University of Iowa began when school officials wrestled with how to pay for an expansion of women's varsity sports to include crew and soccer, Ms. Rhodes says. A recommendation has been made to use a $200,000 yearly grant from the school's general fund plus a reduction in tuition for out-of-state athletes attending Iowa on scholarships.
"If we add both new sports, and the NCAA makes some cuts in the number of football scholarships, we could be about at 50-50," Rhodes says, bringing up perhaps the toughest part of the gender-equity equation: how to fit football in, with its disproportionate number of scholarships, huge squad sizes, extensive recruiting, and large expenses on equipment and facilities.
"The beauty of our proposal is that it doesn't weaken the football program," Rhodes says, though she adds, "If football gives a little, it will be a big help on equity."
According to Charles Neinas, executive director of the College Football Association, football has already given. Over recent years, he says, the number of football grants awarded to incoming athletes has been reduced by 20 percent, coaching staffs have been reduced from 16 to 10, and "we wisely reduced the recruiting calendar to less than eight weeks." He acknowledges that these steps were taken in response to financial demands, not gender-equity concerns. But he says his organization is committed to "sa tisfying Title IX; it's the law."
That does not mean, however, that the football association backs "proportionality" as the best way of judging compliance with Title IX. That standard is "utterly impossible to satisfy if you're sponsoring a football program," Neinas says. An irony is all this, he adds, is that the "best-funded women's programs in the country are at schools that sponsor division I-A football," the top competitive level.
Those schools also have the lowest participation rates for women, says Donna Lopiano, who heads the Women's Sports Foundation in New York. She uses the University of Texas, where she was once director of women's intercollegiate athletics, as an example: "Sure, we spent $4.5 million, but we had only seven teams and 120 athletes, compared to 280 for the men."
The heaviest burden of gender equity may come down on the NCAA committee that looks at financial conditions at member schools, Ms. Lopiano says. "There is not 100 percent more resources to create a mirror image of men's participation for women." Squad sizes and scholarship allocations will have to be rethought, she says. And not only for women's sports: Men's sports besides football and basketball will also be competing for a piece of the pie.