It’s the 21st century, and equality for women is embraced as a norm. Rarely is it demanded or given begrudgingly anymore.
That evolution, at least in collegiate athletics, is more than self-evident: During the past three decades, women’s participation across all three NCAA divisions has soared to 191,131 athletes – nearly triple the number from 1981-82.
Credit the progress directly to Title IX, the landmark legislation passed 40 years ago that prohibits gender discrimination in any educational arena among schools receiving federal funds.
Title IX’s unqualified success in helping level the playing field might make some wonder if all the controversy it sparked during its early years is a thing of the past.
• Happy anniversary, Title IX, by Beth Ann Baldry
Don’t bet on it. An undercurrent challenging Title IX, essentially, as reverse discrimination, is fomenting among critics, and they’re bound to clash with the law’s ardent defenders, who insist much more work needs to be done before true equality is achieved. It’s unlikely the dispute will be contained within the ivy-covered walls of college campuses, and it could spill out to high schools across the nation.
If that happens, it’s conceivable that girls’ sports, including golf, could undergo a proliferation much the way they’ve multiplied on the collegiate landscape. But some observers fear that might come at the expense of boys’ athletics, meaning their squads could get axed.
No one questions Title IX’s objective: equality for girls and women. But there is certainly debate as to whether the means to achieve that end is fair.
“We support Title IX as the law is written, but we disagree with how it is regulated because it sets up a system of numerical limits on the men’s side,” said Eric Pearson, chairman of the American Sports Council, an umbrella group working on behalf of men’s teams that claim to have been disenfranchised by Title IX.
At the crux of the issue is what’s known as proportionality, the primary measure of Title IX compliance. It requires that gender participation among athletes mirror the female-male ratio of an institution’s overall student body. Therefore, if a school’s enrollment is 60 percent female and 40 percent male, its athletic participation must reflect the 60/40 ratio.
Considering that women outnumber men in college nationally, yet male athletic participation still exceeds women’s, university officials mainly have pursued two options to meet the letter of the law: add more women’s teams or cut men’s programs.
The pursuit of proportionality has produced eye-opening results – some impressive, others alarming, depending on one’s point of view. According to an NCAA report tracking Title IX’s impact since 1988-89:
• Colleges and universities have added 4,641 women’s teams – 42 percent more than the number of men’s programs added (3,272).
• Elimination of men’s programs (2,748) exceeded by 41 percent the number of dropped women’s teams (1,943).
• Though the overall number of men’s programs has increased during this period, some sports – particularly those classified as “nonrevenue generating” – have suffered severe reductions. Among those hit the hardest: wrestling, gymnastics, fencing and water polo.
Though it may be well-intentioned, the proportionality standard is nothing more than a quota, reformers complain. Said Pearson: “Title IX only accounts for equal outcomes, but is blind to the fact that school is providing equal opportunity.”
As the law stands now, reformers say that a school could provide men’s and women’s teams equal resources, an equal number of roster spots and equal investment to fill them but still could be “punished” if there’s a shortfall in the number of female athletes.
They’re seeking changes to Title IX that would determine compliance based on “tests” measuring equitable treatment of both sexes. They also want to eliminate what they say is the arbitrary creation of women’s teams, favoring instead the addition of programs only when there’s a demonstrated demand for them.
But many Title IX advocates view such changes as weakening the law and deem them unacceptable, considering the inequities that remain. In the NCAA’s three divisions, male athletes still outnumber female athletes by 32 percent – 252,946 vs. 191,131. (The discrepancy still exists because of limited federal resources to enforce Title IX and flexibility given to schools as long as they are making progress toward compliance.)
What rankles Title IX defenders the most is the inaccurate portrayal that the law requires schools to cut men’s programs. Title IX makes no such mandate, they say, adding that elimination occurs for a variety of reasons, including lack of funds or interest. “But (university officials would) rather blame it on Title IX,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a renowned Title IX expert and senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation.
She insists that men’s programs don’t have to be cut; schools could re-prioritize their athletic budgets, tighten spending across the board, fundraise or generate more money to add women’s teams. She argues it’s time to rein in what she calls “out-of- control spending” in big-time college football and basketball. As evidence, she cites a Knight Commission report that shows SEC schools’ median spending per athlete in 2009 was $156,833 – a sum skewed greatly by football’s expenditure. (By comparison, Division I schools without football spent $37,197.)
“You can produce Olympic-caliber athletes with that kind of money,” said Hogshead-Makar, who won four medals in swimming during the 1984 Summer Games.
Title IX critics, however, argue that making “scapegoats” out of college football and basketball fails to address the inherent inadequacies of the law. They also point out that such programs generate millions of dollars for the entire athletic department, often subsidizing the men’s – and women’s – teams of nonrevenue sports.
Realizing that no athletic director wants to jeopardize the big business that is football, Mary Jo Kane says the NCAA should take action to restore balance to college athletics.
“College football is in an arms race, and you can’t ask one coach to unilaterally disarm,” said Kane, a University of Minnesota professor and director of its Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. “But why do college football programs have rosters of 125 (with 85 scholarships) when NFL teams have 53? Name me a CEO in America who would allow you to have a bloated workforce and unnecessary expenses.”
The NCAA could establish roster reductions and other “caps” for all schools, ensuring no one suffers a competitive disadvantage – and yielding savings that could be invested in women’s sports. Whether the NCAA takes such action remains to be seen. Added Kane: “It would require a lot of moral courage.”
But when there’s no alternative revenue source to tap, then what? That’s the question that will surface if proportionality is aggressively sought in the nation’s high schools, says Pearson of the American Sports Council. There already are several lawsuits pending against school boards, demanding the addition of girls’ teams.
“So many school systems don’t have a dime to spare,” said Pearson, who insists they will have little choice but to cut boys’ teams.
Title IX advocates counter that limited means can’t be an excuse for inequality. It’s also clear that exercising the law fairly is no easier 40 years later. “It’s one of the most important civil-rights legislation ever passed,” Kane said. “But it comes with very complex issues. That’s the conundrum of Title IX.”