Like a gymnast on a balance beam, the Bush administration is treading carefully as it deals with landmark legislation that has opened up school sports to millions of young women.
While lauding opportunities for female athletes, administration officials including President Bush have criticized what they say are adverse effects on male athletes, particularly the "quotas" they believe have led to fewer team slots for men.
That law known as Title IX prohibits any school that receives federal funding from gender discrimination. The result: In the 30 years since it passed, the number of women playing college sports has risen nearly five-fold, to 151,000, and rosters of high school female athletes have jumped more than nine-fold, to 2.8 million. The number of male athletes at colleges and high schools has gone up as well, by smaller margins.
But over the same period, many universities have dropped less popular men's teams, such as wrestling and gymnastics. Because of this, the National Wrestling Coaches Association (with several college and sports groups) sued the Department of Education the agency overseeing Title IX. Supporters of Title IX had feared that the administration would side with the coaches' association. Instead, Justice Department lawyers this week moved to dismiss the case, arguing that schools themselves not the federal government have to remedy discrimination.
Title IX supporters are cautiously happy with the administration action, but wary. "It spoke volumes that ... the administration made no defense whatsoever, even in passing, of the athletics policies that are so important to young women in this country," says Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center.
As a presidential candidate, Mr. Bush said he opposed "quotas or strict proportionality" in school sports. Likewise, while House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois has voiced support for the goals of Title IX, he, too, is troubled by the apparent effect on men's programs.
"The issue is, is there a way to increase women's opportunities without sacrificing opportunities for men?" asks Pete Jefferies, an aide to Mr. Hastert.
All this sharpens the debate over merits of the 1972 law.
"Title IX has been extremely successfully in creating athletics opportunities for girls," says Paul Haagen, a law professor at Duke University. "It has ... fostered a culture of women's athletics. It is extremely unlikely that change would have come so quickly or completely without it."
The problem, as many see it, is that some men-only sports mainly football have so many players, and generate so much revenue, that administrators are loathe to cut them.
"From the beginning, the central problem in determining ... an equitable treatment of men's and women's sports is ... football," says Mr. Haagen. "If football is removed from the equation, there is very close to parity."
"There's just no counterpart to men's football," agrees Rick Dickson, athletic director at Tulane University in New Orleans. "And because of that, you have to skew a number of programs to equalize the opportunities." Tulane is cutting its men's track programs while adding another women's sport to comply with Title IX, says Mr. Dickson. "That's unfortunate," he says, "but I don't know how you can argue that it's more unfortunate than the decades of young women who never got the opportunity [to play]."
Some analysts question the motives of those cutting men's teams. "Athletic directors have decided that they don't have the budget or don't want to increase opportunities for women, so they react by taking away opportunities from men," says Carol Barr, a sports management expert at the University of Massachusetts.
Schools can comply with Title IX in one of three ways: by demonstrating substantial "proportionality" so that the percentage of sports slots for women comes close to the percentage of women enrolled, by showing a history of increasing sports opportunities for women, or by meeting the abilities and interests of women athletes.
Critics focus on proportionality, claiming that it amounts to a "quota." But doing away with proportionality which is what many Title IX supporters fear, and what many critics hope for could make a big difference in how schools respond to the need for greater equity. This is especially true because proportionality is the only means of compliance that is quantifiable.
"I suspect that any weakening of the proportionality requirement will make it substantially harder to enforce Title IX," says Mr. Haagen.
More fundamentally, questions remain about the level of interest in sports among women. "Even the most well-intentioned college athletic departments can't get women to turn out at the same levels [as men]," says Christine Stolba, a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum.
That's nonsense, reply those who see Title IX as providing opportunities to which millions of female athletes have responded. "To punish women who are just as interested in sports as men is bad policy," says Kevin Matthews of the Center for the Study of Sport and Society at Northeastern University in Boston.
For now, some wonder whether the Bush administration having gone on record opposing a high-profile lawsuit will try to change the way the law is administered, particularly since the Clinton administration zealously enforced it. "They could roll back the regulations, they could change the policy interpretations," says Arthur Bryant, an Oakland, Calif., lawyer who has argued key Title IX cases. "But at least they're not saying they're going to do any of that now."
Staff writers Christina McCarroll and Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this article.