Equal Opportunity? Title IX and Intercollegiate Sports

By Weistart, John | Brookings Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Equal Opportunity? Title IX and Intercollegiate Sports


Weistart, John, Brookings Review


The subtext of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 as it applies to intercollegiate sports could easily be "Bear Bryant in the age of postmodernism." Bear Bryant, the legendary coach of the powerful University of Alabama football teams of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, is remembered in faculty circles for his quick assessment of how athletics and academics should be ordered in higher education. In response to questions about how the athletic department could justify its independence from the usual regime of academic deliberations, Mr. Bryant offered that it was unlikely that 50,000 people would show up to watch an English professor give a final exam.

A central tenet of postmodern philosophy is that few immutable canons or absolutes exist. What becomes the controlling norm is greatly affected by who is given a place at the table where the norm is discussed. Title IX presents a stellar example of that perspective as it applies generally to federal law and regulation.

For virtually all the history of college sports, all the seats at the table have been occupied by men--and not a particularly broad cross section at that. For the first one hundred or more years of college sports, there were no women's sports. "College sports" meant men's sports.

Moreover, at schools where football is the important sport, to be invited to the table one had to be a believer in the primacy of football and in the unimportance of virtually everything else. At some schools, the sport that defined the athletic department's mission was basketball, but the ordering of the world was comparable.

While Title IX and its mandate of increased opportunities for women has been around for 25 years, the group at the table has not changed much. Even today, one does not become an athletic director in a substantial program without understanding that the revenue sports, which means one or both of the two dominant men's sports, come first. While this reality of football and basketball as the defining influence is most apt for the 40 or so largest programs in each sport, it is also relevant for smaller programs. Both culturally and economically, the two men's revenue sports cast a long shadow. For example, Brown University, not a traditional sports power house, admirably sponsors more than 30 men's and women's sports. But in a recent year, 42 percent of its budget went to three men's sports--football, basketball, and ice hockey.

A Chilly Reception

As an example of the prospects of change through regulation, the reception of Title IX in college sports is notable. After 25 years, only three dozen of the top 300 programs are in compliance. Women receive less than 40 percent of athletic scholarships. Certainly athletic opportunities for women are greater than they were in 1970, when they were virtually nonexistent. But the lack of compliance with Title IX is remarkable, especially given the relatively swift embrace of gender integration in college enrollment and the slower, but substantial, integration of many faculties. Today 55 percent of undergraduate students are women, for example. In the next decade, the number is slated to rise to 60 percent.

Who is at the table does seem to make a difference. Imagine, for example, that instead of a group dedicated to preserving and protecting the football or basketball program, budgetary allocations were made by a body that included former women athletes, tuition-paying parents of young women athletes, and a representative from the Women's Studies faculty. Would women athletes traveling to away games sleep two to a bed, four to a room, while their male counterparts are given separate beds in double rooms, as has been common? Whether the 100 students on the football team should be consuming more than half of a $20 million athletic budget, which is typical in big-time programs, would not go unquestioned. Nor would we likely see a continuation of the pattern at smaller schools where the amount spent per player on football exceeds the amount spent per team for most women's sports. …

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