Politics & Policy

A Fairer Game

A long-needed start to reforming Title IX.

You don’t have to be a women’s soccer fan to remember when Brandi Chastain was everywhere, in her sports bra. It was 1999 and she had just led the U.S. women’s soccer team to their World Cup victory, stripping on the field in celebration. Soon we were told she couldn’t have done any of it without Title IX.

While most of the ESPN viewers may have stopped paying attention somewhere after the bra close-up and the first mention of education law, Title IX is widely considered a “triumph” among many women athletes and women’s-sports advocates. It’s the stuff of laudatory Lifetime specials. As Welch Suggs, an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education describes it in his new book A Place on the Team, the 1972 law “requires schools and colleges not to discriminate on the basis of sex.” But the reality of the law has been grim for male student athletes caught in its net.

As Jessica Gavora tells in her 2002 book Tilting the Playing Field the mom-and-apple-pie type law crafted after the Civil Rights Act “to end discrimination against women” has devolved into a reality that is “causing discrimination against men.” Under a later-added “proportionality” mandate, if a school’s student population is 60-percent women and 40-percent men, the sports programs have to reflect that breakdown exactly–even if 60 percent of the female students don’t want to play sports.

The fallout has hit men’s sports hard. As of a 2001 General Accounting Office audit, in the years since 1972, over 170 men’s wrestling programs, 80 men’s tennis teams, 70 men’s gymnastics teams, and 45 men’s track teams have been eliminated. At the same time, women’s sports programs increased nine-fold.

For women’s-sports advocates like National Women’s Law Center, Title IX has just entered an early midlife crisis. On March 18, the Department of Education issued a “clarification” on Title IX enforcement, which will allow schools to use interest surveys to gauge the sports students want. The surveys will help schools determine who’s interested in what, and will provide easy evidence when schools are challenged–their first instinct won’t be to cut teams for fear of lawsuits.

Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center, however, calls the new guidelines “an underhanded way to weaken Title IX and make it easy for schools that aren’t interested in providing equal opportunity for women to skirt the law.” But, in truth, as Eric Pearson, executive director of the College Sports Council, a coalition of coaches, parents and athletes, points out, Title IX has just gotten a little of the wisdom that often comes with age. Pearson calls the new guidelines, while not perfect, “a viable, common-sense alternative to the gender quota that has wreaked havoc on college athletics.”

For many advocates of Title IX reform, the new guidelines came as a surprise, if not a shock. They’ve been burned before. President George W. Bush set up a blue-ribbon commission during his first term to review the law and how it is enforced. While the 15-member commission leaned more to the side of bean counters than reformers, the members recommended changes, which were, for the most part, ignored by the administration in 2003, when the issue was last was broached.

At the time, some argued that the administration had sold out to feminists who wanted a federally mandated, unfair crutch to remain in place. Meanwhile, women’s groups decried the president anyway for minimally diluting what, they said, women want and need. Donna Lopiano, the head of the Women’s Sport Foundation, falsely claimed that the commission was “stacked” against women and argued that the White House was “basically trying to undo everything we’ve accomplished in 30 years.”

This argument was nothing new, in 1995, when now Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (a former high-school wrestling coach) merely convened a congressional hearing looking at Title IX, Republicans were vilified. Never again would Congress go there.

But U.S. Secretary for Education Margaret Spellings has jumped into this hoop of controversy by becoming the public face for these guidelines. Expect her to take a lot of heat from women’s groups who feel especially betrayed with a sista doing the administration’s reform work. Meanwhile, Spellings is a new heroine to folks like Jonathan Plante, who in 2001 had his gymnastics team at Michigan State cut. And to Beverly Brandon, whose son, Barrett, had his University of Nebraska swim team cut that same year.

The new interest surveys are a light shone on the often-confusing controversy over Title IX, many reformers believe. Jessica Gavora predicts that feminists “are afraid of what interest surveys will show,” because they know the surveys will show that women are not underserved in college athleticism. Surveys may let the secret out: Brandi doesn’t need to hurt Barrett to win a World Cup.

© 2005, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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