Sports, Sex, and Title IX

By Rhoads, Steven E. | The Public Interest, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Sports, Sex, and Title IX

Rhoads, Steven E., The Public Interest

THIS past July, the Department of Education reaffirmed existing Title IX regulatory policy, rejecting several changes proposed earlier in the year. Title IX supporters were surprised, delighted, and triumphant; would-be conservative reformers were bitterly disappointed.

Contentious from its inception, the 1972 law to end sex discrimination in publicly funded schools had become the subject of intense controversy when the Department of Education's Commission on Opportunity in Athletics announced proposed modifications to it earlier this year. Women's sports groups and feminists argued that several of the commission's recommendations threatened to undermine Title IX's central guarantee that "no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." Those in favor of reform, meanwhile, argued that the way in which Title IX has been interpreted by federal regulatory agencies and the courts has resulted in significantly decreased athletic opportunities for men. Reformers were cautiously optimistic that at least some changes were forth-coming. Title IX reform was on the 2000 Republican agenda, and many prominent women on the commission supported reform measures, including a female coach, an athletic director, and a WNBA All-Star.

In the end, the Department of Education adopted none of the recommended changes, promising instead to aggressively enforce the existing regulations. Why did the Department of Education back away from reform, rejecting the recommendations of its own commission? Many political observers believe the decision was a matter of politics, in light of the upcoming presidential election year. There is clearly broad public support for equal opportunities for women in sports. The question is whether Title IX as currently interpreted is the right vehicle for achieving this goal.

The quota factor

Under the current law, institutions can meet Title IX requirements in one of three ways. The first (and safest) is essentially a quota system in which schools orchestrate their ratio of athletes in proportion to the male-female ratio on campus. The second does not involve a quota system as long as the school is moving toward quotas through a "history and continuing practice" of expanding opportunities for female athletes. The third way is to ensure that the interests and abilities of female athletes have been "fully and effectively accommodated." As interpreted, this means in effect that a school cannot deny a female student the opportunity to play the sport of her choice simply because the school does not offer the sport.

Not surprisingly, most universities have chosen the first option, aiming for an athlete sex ratio as close as possible to the male-female student ratio on campus. Given tight budgets, they have attempted to reach this goal by cutting or trimming male teams and adding new teams for women. The effects on athletic departments have been substantial. From 1985 to 1997, more than 21,000 spots for male athletes have been cut, and more than 359 male teams have disappeared since 1992. Christine Stolba of the Independent Women's Forum reported to the Title IX commission that "between 1993 and 1999 alone 53 men's golf teams, 39 men's track teams, 43 wrestling teams, and 16 baseball teams have been eliminated. The University of Miami's diving team, which has produced 15 Olympic athletes, is gone."

Wrestling teams have been particularly devastated. Intercollegiate wrestling has been a sport for nearly 100 years and ranks fourth in revenue production of all NCAA Championships. Wrestling is also growing at the high school level and attracts nearly a quarter-million boys--numbers that make it the sixth most popular high school male sport. Yet, as Stolba testified, scores of collegiate wrestling teams have been discontinued to satisfy Title IX strictures. …

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