Good Sports?

By Thelin, John R. | Journal of Higher Education, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Good Sports?


Thelin, John R., Journal of Higher Education


Historical Perspective on the Political Economy of Intercollegiate Athletics in the Era of Title IX, 1972-1997

On April 21, 1997 the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case of Brown University versus Cohen, thus upholding a lower court decision to require the university to adhere to strict criteria for demonstrating gender equity in intercollegiate athletics. Media coverage described this as a "landmark victory" for women's athletic programs that would fulfill compliance with 1972 Title IX legislation (Brady, 1997; Farrell, 1997; Mauro, 1997; Naughton 1997a, 1997b). In contrast, many higher education associations objected that the court's interpretation of Title IX was unreasonable to colleges and universities in two respects: first, requisite new funding for women's varsity sports would strain athletics department budgets; second, the court's ruling relied on compliance with statistical tests that imposed "insurmountable burdens on colleges and universities" and might "lead to the very discrimination that Title IX prohibits" (Brief of Amici Curiae, 1996). Such complaints raised a troubling question: in matters of athletics and public policy, were colleges behaving like "poor losers" rather than "good sports"?

That the higher education community of One DuPont Circle was worried by the Supreme Court's ruling came as little surprise. Brown University's intercollegiate athletic program represented a "best case" scenario to demonstrate commitment to women's athletics (Boucher, 1997; Szanton, 1993). If Brown were found to be out of compliance with Title IX tests, then most institutions in the National Collegiate Athletics Association's Division I probably would be vulnerable to sanctions. Indeed, a study released by the NCAA shortly after the Brown v. Cohen ruling concluded that it would be "at least a decade" before most colleges would achieve equity in funding for women's sports (Associated Press, 1997b).

Despite such grim data and projections, a key point in the higher education association's amicus curiae brief was their claim that they supported Title IX in principle and merely disagreed with the specific tests and criteria. To examine their intriguing assertion, this study uses a historical lens, whereas most of the commentary on this case predictably has dealt with the legal specifics of the Brown situation. Adding this historical perspective to the legal debate is essential because over the long run, one must look beyond Brown to take into account trends and developments across the national college and university landscape. Here, the focus shifts to a related but distinct and understudied aspect: namely, the economics and politics of college sports in the quarter century since Congress passed Title IX. As such, it tests out some theoretical bases for understanding the general organizational behavior of higher education institutions. First, it allows one to revisit the traditional adage that universities tend to be liberal in matters of policy advocacy for society at large, yet conservative in their own practices and behaviors (Kerr, 1963, pp. 34. 94-95, 105). And second, it provides a good case study to examine the contention from college and university presidents that their institutions since 1980 have been subjected to excessive, unreasonable federal regulation (Bok, 1980).

Research Questions

This study responds directly to two objections raised by numerous higher education associations in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling. First, "Since passage of Title IX in 1972 have varsity sports programs for women been a primary cause of financial strains and deficits in the operation of intercollegiate athletics programs at NCAA Division I institutions?" Second, "Have colleges and universities over the past twenty-five years demonstrated voluntary compliance in data collection and self-regulation dealing with gender equity and sports to show that strict federal guidelines are an unreasonable and unnecessary intrusion on the tradition of college and university self-determination? …

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