Thirty-six years ago, Title IX became law in an effort to provide women equal participation opportunities within federally funded education programs. Seven years later, athletics became the emphasis, and a firestorm has raged ever since.
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” — excerpt from Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972
To think, this was supposed to be about doctors and lawyers.
Thirty-six years ago, Title IX became law in an effort to provide women equal participation opportunities within federally funded education programs.
Seven years later, athletics became the emphasis, and a firestorm has raged ever since.
Debates flared up locally on May 13 when Arizona State dropped three men’s sports — wrestling, men’s tennis and men’s swimming. The core reason was to save $1.1 million annually from the budget, but once reductions were determined as the only course of action, Title IX requirements dictated which sports were cut.
The law has been an unquestionable boon for women’s sports, with youth participation numbers up and pro sports such as the WNBA providing new opportunities.
But it’s been a bust for men’s Olympic sports that get squeezed out by enrollment numbers and shrinking athletic department budgets.
Is there a way the two genders can better co-exist?
“No doubt, men’s Olympic sports haven’t benefited from Title IX, and that’s unfortunate,” ASU associate athletic director Dawn Rogers said. “That’s a shortfall of the law. It’s about providing opportunities, not taking away from one group to keep up with another.”
PROS AND CONS
In 1970, one in 27 high school girls played a varsity sport. Today, that figure is two in five, with professional leagues a product of this growth surge.
“The issue of whether girls should play sports is off the radar screen,” said Mary Jo Kane, director at the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “It’s now moved to ‘What sport should that be?’
“What we never had was a critical mass; they were exceptions. Now we’ve created a mass, and the women grow up with a sense of entitlement to play sport.”
But there have been unintended consequences.
More than 430 high school and college wrestling programs have been eliminated since Title IX’s inception. Five schools from the Big East have cut between two and five men’s sports since 1996, and only two-thirds of the Big Ten’s 11 member schools have gymnastics or men’s swimming programs.
Arizona State men’s swimming coach Mike Chasson is the latest victim of this numbers crunch.
“I think Title IX has been incredibly important, but basically it gives universities an excuse to drop men’s sports,” said Chasson, who also coaches the women’s team. “That’s the bottom line.”
ASU wrestling received a reprieve May 23 thanks to a group of private donors that guaranteed an $8 million endowment. Because wrestling will be privately funded, it will be exempt from Title IX.
ASU athletic director Lisa Love, who is trying to raise money to reinstate the men’s programs that were cut, declined to be interviewed on the topic of Title IX, and five messages left with the NCAA in Indianapolis seeking interviews were not returned.
Chasson is not alone. There are a growing number of coaches, administrators and athletes dissatisfied with Title IX, which is why there is growing discussion on how to tweak it.
One idea focuses on football, a sport that throws a wrench into Title IX guidelines because its numbers and cost are unparalleled by any female counterpart.
The other deals with proportionality, and the assumption that women and men have equal interest in playing sports.
Implementation of either plan would require a monumental effort, but many believe it’s time.
“Change is a bear,” Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood said. “Everyone likes it except when it affects us. We’ve got some tough (decisions).”
THE PIGSKIN PICKLE
When it comes to Title IX, the elephant in the room is football.
The nation’s most popular collegiate sport is a cash cow for athletic departments. It supplies the funding for most other sports, it enhances a school’s national profile and it energizes the alumni base.
But there is a cost.
Since Division I football programs sport three times as many scholarships (85) as any other sport, athletic departments in financial distress are sometimes forced to cut other men’s sports to remain in compliance with Title IX.
What’s an athletic director to do?
“Nobody, nobody has come up with a way to deal with football,” Livengood said.
Ideas explored for dealing with the football conundrum include:
• Dropping football altogether (as St. John’s University did five years ago).
• Reducing football scholarships.
• Eliminating football from the Title IX compliance equation.
Since football provides by far the largest revenue streams for most athletic departments, not many schools would consider dropping it altogether.
“I think football has earned its keep and it’s been beneficial to other activities,” said former ASU football coach Frank Kush, a proponent of Title IX with two daughters who play softball and golf. “The more scholarships you have is going to be more expensive, but football gives some of these sports a chance because of (its) monetary success.”
Proponents of football scholarship reductions point to the excess money spent on 85 scholarships, hotels before home games and training meals.
“I love college football. Love it. But if you downsize football, income will still be high, and the money you save might add a women’s team and not drop wrestling,” Kane said. “Show me a CEO who’d keep his job for years when the gold standard (NFL) does it with less work force.”
Opponents believe any reduction in football spending by an individual school or conference could lead to a backlash from fans, alumni and potential recruits.
“It would have to be decided at a national level,” said Rogers, noting ASU had one of the smallest football budgets among competitors for the Director’s Cup, given to the overall NCAA sports champion. “You’re simply not going to compete if you reduce your own.”
“At some point we’re going to have to get to that topic collectively, whether agreed or by being told to,” Livengood added. “No one ever said 85 was the right number, it’s just what we have.“
There have been attempts to remove football from the Title IX equation. The sheer numbers involved in the sport — teams often have more than 100 players — account for such a large part of the men’s participation percentage that it puts a strain on men’s Olympic sports as a school attempts to remain in compliance with Title IX.
There is no women’s sport equivalent, so there are often fewer opportunities for a men’s team than for its female counterpart (i.e., fewer scholarships for men’s swimmers versus women’s swimmers). Many colleges also support more women’s teams than men’s teams to balance out football.
If football is taken out of the equation, the men’s and women’s teams in other sports would have similar opportunities.
In the 1970s, four separate efforts were made to amend Title IX to exclude football, and each failed.
The Women’s Sports Foundation argues that discounting football would defeat the purpose of Title IX, giving colleges a much higher percentage of male athletes.
Title IX assumes that there is an equal level of interest in sports between men and women, and thus tries to proportion participation in college athletics based on undergraduate enrollment.
According to a survey by the Women’s Sports Foundation, girls and boys ages 6 to 9 are equally interested in sports. But as children age, do their interests diversify or deviate from athletics?
Some say the data behind that is severely lacking.
In 2003, nine proposals were voted on by a Bush administration-appointed Title IX commission, including the usage of surveys as a way to gauge students’ athletic interest.
For example, if there was a 20 percent gap in the interest in sports between men and women, advocates would want a proportional split of 60-40, as opposed to equal opportunities.
The proposals led to minor changes, but no significant differences from the original letter of the law.
A variance was proposed to give colleges a 2 percent to 3 percent leeway on the 50-50 proportionality, but it deadlocked in a 7-7 tie (one member wasn’t present) and never was enacted.
American University professor Rita Simon doubts any significant data has been collected since.
“I don’t know (how it’s progressing),” said Simon, who made one of the proposals to the commission. “I don’t know that there have been any full follow-ups. I was hoping that we’d send out surveys every few years, but the Department of Education did not follow up on that.”
Simon would still like to follow through with her original proposal.
“Send out a survey to young men and women, (asking) how many of them were interested in participating in sports,” she said. “The assumption is it’s equal, but what if the women don’t want to? What if they’re interested in music, dance or in other kinds of things?
“We assume that the interest is equal. I think we need the data.
“It’s a little ludicrous if it turned out that two-thirds of men want to participate in college sports, and only one-third of women do. To have everything based on equality seems silly.”
Leo Kocher is president of the College Sports Council and a wrestling coach at the University of Chicago. He cited degrees such as nursing and elementary education, as well as collegiate dance programs, as areas that tend to be female dominated.
He doesn’t have a problem with uneven proportions if they match the level of interest, but he emphasized that interest and preference should be the major considerations.
“We only seem to want to apply quotas when it’s males in the majority — I think it’s a double standard,” he said. “I don’t think they should be getting rid of female dancers, because I think there’s more interest.”
The current female undergraduate enrollment at the majority of colleges is more than 50 percent, and Title IX asks each athletic department to make sure female participation matches that number.
But Kocher said it leads to disappointment on many ends.
For example, some schools eliminate more popular sports such as women’s golf and add sports such as women’s equestrian or crew in order to boost the number of female participants.
The avid female golfers lose their spots, and Kocher said that in some cases, on-campus recruiting is necessary just to fill out the crew or equestrian rosters.
Male sports are also affected.
“When they tell a baseball coach that he can’t keep 28 guys, that he has to get it down to 22, they call it roster management,” Kocher said. “To tell those six to 10 walk-on athletes to clean out their lockers — and not because it saves some money, not because it gives women opportunities — that is morally indefensible.
“They’re denying opportunities in order to reach simple quotas.”
If surveys are conducted — and subsequently show lesser interest from women in sports — it leads to another set of problems.
If the scholarship numbers are reduced for women, it could affect high school and youth athletic participation for girls. The drop in opportunities might dissuade girls from playing sports, and end up defeating Title IX’s original purpose.
“My gut feeling is it would probably regress,” Chasson said of women’s opportunities if scholarships were taken away. “I doubt it would go back to where it was 30 years ago, but it would change.”
In other words, the one-step-forward, one-step-back routine would continue. Combine this gender tug-of-war with the complexity and social significance of the law, and it’s easy to see why many inside university walls are powerless to force change by themselves.
“Nobody has gotten arms around it,” Livengood said of tweaking Title IX. “The minute you talk in a generic sense in any context, (there) is a perceived weakening on the women’s side and it doesn’t get any traction, so it’s hard to go beyond that.
“Some things could be talked about, but it’s a very hard concept.”
Instead, each side points the finger at the other as opportunities grow and shrink simultaneously under a law intended to create equality.
“It pits sports against each other, and that’s the hard part,” Rogers said. “It’s so polarizing, and at the end of the day, nothing gets changed because nobody wants to lose those wonderful opportunities for women.”