How Some Colleges Score Parity for Women's Athletics

More schools are sued for falling short, but a few built model sports programs

Amid renewed furor over how colleges can achieve equal opportunity for their women athletes, a few schools have quietly built model athletic programs that demonstrate it can be done.

One is Brooklyn College, where 57 percent of the student body are women and 57 percent of the school's collegiate athletes are women.

"Our school is in perfect compliance," says Vivian Acosta, an associate director of athletics at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York system. "I would venture to say we are probably the only school in the United States that can say that."

It's not as if schools haven't had time to make adjustments. For 25 years federal law has mandated that American women receive equal opportunity to participate in college sports. Yet, today, in 1997, only a handful of colleges or universities can claim they abide by both the letter and spirit of the landmark women's rights law, Title IX.

Much attention has focused on schools that fail to comply - especially those that have been targets of lawsuits, such as Brown University in Rhode Island. But a recent federal appeals court ruling in that case reinforced federal regulations about the law - and sent Title IX laggards scuttling for ways to improve sports opportunities for women athletes.

A couple of the success stories come from college-sports powerhouses. At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, women comprise 49 percent of the student body and 45 percent of athletes. The University of Washington in Seattle - the target of a 1979 sports discrimination lawsuit - has a female enrollment of 47 percent and a female sports participation rate of 46 percent.

These schools have one thing in common: administrators, athletic directors, and coaches who recognize the importance of offering equal opportunities to college students regardless of whether they are men or women.

"This has not just been an athletic department issue, or a women's issue. It is a university issue," says Peg Bradley-Doppes, senior associate athletic director at Michigan.

"[Women] pay the same tuition," Ms. Acosta says. "Why shouldn't they get the same opportunities, not only in classes but all over the campus?" She adds, "If a school doesn't adhere to that philosophy then they are short-changing more than half of their students."

THIS week the National Women's Law Center in Washington underscored widespread noncompliance with Title IX by filing complaints against 25 universities and colleges nationwide. Rather than focusing on the discrepancy between female enrollment and female participation in sports (which is wide at all 25 schools), the complaints charge the 25 with spending more on athletic scholarships for male athletes than for female athletes.

The Law Center says scholarships should be awarded equally to athletes regardless of sex and female participation rates should mirror enrollment rates.

Critics say the approach smacks of quotas and threatens to erode men's college sports.

Civil rights experts and women's sports advocates see it as an issue of fairness.

The main problem for universities with large football programs has been figuring out how to boost the ranks of women athletes to counterbalance the large roster of football players. Many universities - such as Michigan and Washington - have done it by creating or expanding women's soccer teams and women's crew.

According to the NCAA, the number of schools with women's crew teams has increased from 12 in 1991 to 83 in 1996, and the number of schools with women's soccer teams increased from 318 to 581 during the same period.

Despite continuing enforcement problems with Title IX, the law is helping to transform sports throughout the US. Before passage of the law in 1972, roughly 32,000 collegiate women participated in athletics in the US. By 1995 that number jumped to 110,540, according to the NCAA.

Increased opportunities are causing changes at the high school level as well. In the past 25 years the number of high school girls in competitive sports rose from 300,000 to 2.37 million, according to a recent survey.

The rise of women's athletics is also attracting ever larger numbers of fans to sports such as gymnastics, tennis, basketball, figure skating, and volleyball. In addition, women representing the US won 19 Olympic medals in the 1996 Summer Games.

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