40 years later, Title IX is still fighting perception it hurt men's sports

Mention Title IX and most people think of its impact on college athletic programs, primarily, say coaches, because it is blamed for cuts in men's sports. Supporters say that's a bum rap.

Martha Irvine/AP
Members of the New Trier High School girls' soccer team prepare for a game in the Illinois High School Association girls' soccer tournament in Skokie, Ill. Girls like these are reaping the benefits of Title IX, the federal amendment that opened up sports opportunities to girls and women 40 years ago.

Say “Title IX” – the landmark gender equality legislation marking its 40th anniversary June 23 – and most folks these days will respond, “sports.”

While this “little statute” – one small provision in an omnibus education bill – actually targets parity across the entire education landscape, for most people it has become inextricably linked with its impact on school athletic programs.

That’s largely because, say many coaches and athletic directors who have weathered these years, Title IX has often been blamed for cuts in men’s programs. But, supporters say, that is a bum rap.

“There are many myths and preconceptions about Title IX that hinder its effectiveness,” says Metropolitan State College’s Joan McDermott, in Denver, a rare female athletic director at the higher education level and a veteran of the battles over changes required by the law.

“That’s because when a men’s sport gets dropped, most people say, it’s because of Title IX when that’s just not true,” she says. “It’s because of budget choices by the administration, so that’s an ongoing rap that Title IX gets.”

The Office for Civil Rights of the US Department of Education has guidelines for compliance with Title IX, the main one of which requires sports participation that is proportional to the gender balance in the school’s population. But according to the American Sports Council (ASC) in Washington, a nonprofit coalition of coaches, parents, and athletes, Title IX hurts men’s sports, in part due to this requirement.

“When schools have too few female athletes (i.e., the percentage of females enrolled exceed the percentage of athletes), they’re presumed noncompliant. They’re then forced to create the illusion of substantial proportionality by denying men the opportunity to participate,” writes ASC advisory board member Karen Owoc, on the nonprofit’s website.

This means, she continues, that many women’s teams have not been helped, “but rather, men have been hurt.”

The Fairness in Sports Foundation site catalogues a long list of men’s programs that have been cut, it states, due to Title IX requirements.

The numbers however, tell a different story. Regarding collegiate sports, Title IX focuses on access and participation. In a list of FAQ’s on its website seeking to refute allegations that Title IX has hurt men’s athletics, the NCAA points out that since the law's inception, both male and female participation in college sports have increased.

Just between 2002 and 2011, the NCAA says, the number of men in college sports increased by 38,482 between 2002 and 2011. During that same period, the number of females went up by less, some 32,662.

The NCAA also points out that nonrevenue men’s sports are often cut to provide more funds for the two big revenue sports, football and basketball. In 2006, for instance, Rutgers University dropped men's tennis, a team with a budget of approximately $175,000. The National Women's Law Center points out that Rutgers spent about $175,000 in the same year on hotel rooms for the football team – for home games.

The biggest ongoing misconception about Title IX is that it's a law against men, says Robert Schneider, author of the textbook, "Ethics of Sport and Athletics: Theories, Issues, and Practice." In fact, he says via e-mail from Turkey, where he is presenting a paper on Title IX at a conference, “it's a law that requires universities to make choices as to the sports they will offer for men and women in a way that allows for equal participation by both men and women.

The law itself, notes Professor Schneider, who teaches sport management at The College at Brockport in New York, “receives an ‘A.’ Enforcement of the law receives a ‘C.’ And depending on the university, following the letter and spirit of the law ranges from an ‘A’ to an ‘F.’ ” Some universities adhere completely to it, he notes, while “others make every effort to circumvent it.”

From its inception, opponents such as the late Sen. Jesse Helms, sought to eliminate it. Title IX has fought off attempts to weaken it in the courts, in Congress, and in the executive branch, says Erin Buzuvis, professor of law at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass., and co-founder of The Title IX Blog.

“It endures a constant barrage of misinformation promoting the myth that Title IX’s gains have come at the expense of men,” she notes via e-mail. For instance, though men’s athletic opportunities have, like women’s, steadily increased over the last 40 years, many blame Title IX for the fact that some schools and colleges choose to concentrate men’s athletic opportunities in the large-roster sport of football rather than offer men a more diverse array of opportunities.

Those who have labored in the trenches from the law’s inception say it has been worth the fight.

“We used Title IX as a way to push for what we deserved,” says Vicki Staton, the former Washington & Jefferson College head women’s basketball and volleyball coach, who coached from 1975 to 2003.

In 1975, she was one of the few coaches in western Pennsylvania recruiting at a time when local high schools did not provide for women to play sports. “There were many nights when I would think to myself ‘What am I doing this for?’ ”

She says she once asked a local sports reporter, “ ‘Why don’t you cover our team?’ and his response was ‘C’mon, it’s women’s sports.’ ” Ten years later, she says, “his daughter attended my youth basketball camp.”

“It’s been a long process, she says, “but we have always just been fighting for a chance to participate and showcase the athletic skills young women possess. Without Title IX, I don’t think that would have ever been possible.”

Education about the law is the ball that was dropped from the start, says Ellen J. Staurowsky, a professor of Sport Management at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who co-authored a 2010-11 study of some 1,100 coaches and athletic directors to determine their knowledge of Title IX.

This was the first study of its kind, she points out, and notes that “we found that there was very little actual grasp of the specific requirements of the law.” One of the most important requirements – a Title IX coordinator at every school to facilitate programs for every constituency – “was simply never done,” she says, adding, “and so the kind of mass education that was supposed to happen around Title IX never took place.”

It is not enough for the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights to say schools do not have to cut men’s sports to be in compliance with the law, she says, adding, “while that is true, that is not sufficient to get people to believe otherwise.”

The proof is in the numbers, she says.

In a typical elite Division I school, some 80 percent of all sports funds go to two men’s sports, football and basketball. On the other hand, she notes that at a typical Division 3 school, 70 percent of money for men’s sports goes to a wide array, with only 30 percent spent on those two sports.

“Those are administration decisions, not Title IX,” she says, so the sooner “we begin to have a more accurate discussion about Title IX, the healthier it will be for the next generation.” 

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