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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.