At age 40, time for changes to Title IX

Posted: July 09, 2012

Mike Harrigan

After 40 years, it's time for some changes to Title IX and its role in amateur sports.

When President Richard M. Nixon signed the amendments to the Higher Education Act on June 23, 1972, its 37 words — "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 educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance" — helped spark a revolution in amateur sports. But that was never the prime intent of the law. Just recently, former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, its key sponsor, said, "None of us recognized the impact this would have on sports. Athletics get the headlines, but we were thinking about brainpower and knowledge."

Title IX indeed has helped spark a radical shift in American education. Women now represent about 53 percent of U.S. college students, far more than the 40 percent of the early 1970s. The percentage of female students in graduate and professional schools, such as law, business, and medicine, has dramatically increased, as has the number of women on university faculties.

However, a wider range of cultural factors drove the growth of U.S. women's sports. By the 1970s, both men and women were rejecting the Victorian influences that had led many physical education teachers and coaches to oppose competitive sports for women. Berkeley had played basketball against Stanford in the first women's intercollegiate athletic event in 1896, yet it wasn't until 1969 that a national women's championship in that sport was created.

While the number of women playing intercollegiate sports has jumped from 32,000 in 1972 to 186,000 now, the bigger changes in women's sports happened off college campuses. In 1974, about 67,000 girls played soccer for U.S. nonschool clubs and teams. In 2011, that number was more than 1.4 million, even though Title IX does not directly impact those programs. Olga Korbut's gold medal performances at the 1972 Munich Olympics sparked an explosion of interest in gymnastics for girls, usually in clubs outside the school environment. The last 40 years also have seen a significant increase in sports events for women in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, another place where Title IX has no direct impact.

Today's problems with Title IX come from the way that colleges and universities use the so-called "three-prong" approach to implement the act. The rules allow a school to be in compliance if it (a) has sports opportunities consistent with its proportionate enrollment by sex; (b) meets the participation interests of the underrepresented sex; or (c) has made progress toward achieving equal opportunity. Though any of those criteria is acceptable, most colleges choose proportionality because of its ease of measurement and use by judges and the federal government. But proportionality has unintended consequences.

Since 1982, when the NCAA began its involvement with women's sports, many schools have dropped programs for men and added ones for women to reach that proportional goal. NCAA Division I men's wrestling has dropped from 146 to 80 teams in the last 30 years; men's swimming from 181 to 136; and men's gymnastics from 59 to 16. Some proportionality advocates note that the number of men's opportunities has increased since 1982, but that ignores the fact that there are 50 percent more NCAA member schools today.

Institutions often have added women's sports to meet the proportionality goal, not actual demand. To balance the large numbers of men in football programs, many NCAA Division I schools have added women's rowing, with its sizable rosters, for example. Yet there has been little increase in participation in rowing by girls in high schools or clubs to justify that increase.

The bigger problem is that collegiate sports should respond to the interests of current students, not fund-raising drives from alumni and attempts to comply with the proportionality rule. The monetary demands of big-time football and basketball too often drive campus athletic offerings and drain funds for men's sports. Why do all 14 colleges of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) have women's soccer, but only two have men's soccer? Why do all but one of the SEC and Big 10 schools offer women's volleyball, while only two have men's volleyball? It's the big-time budgets that are driving those decisions.

Colleges should stop using the proportionate rule. Get rid of it and the unnatural team patterns will end. Base campus sports programs for both sexes on real supply and demand for each sport. Rein in excessive spending on football and basketball. Treat sports in which both men and women participate on an equivalent basis. Finally, let single-sex sports, such as football or field hockey, stand on their own merits with regard to both popularity and budget realities. Do not cut them merely to reach proportionality.

Title IX has changed amateur sports in America. But now it's time to fine-tune it.

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