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Proportionality in athletic programs, a social construct, should be banished

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By ROBYN E. BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003


Thanks to the way it has been enforced, Title IX, the 1972 law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, including college athletics programs, has turned college athletic directors into bean-counters. Rather than worry about quality of their programs, they are busy making sure they have enough players with the right chromosomes.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison is a prime example. After a complaint was filed against the university in the 1980s, charging that women athletes at the school were being short-changed, bureaucrats from the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education swooped in and aggressively nit-picked the UW program. When the school in 2000 had successfully recruited enough female athletes onto sports teams, and pared down enough men's sports, so the ratio of male to female athletes was nearly even -- there were 425 women athletes and 429 men -- federal regulators said the effort still fell short. Because the student body was 53 percent female, said OCR in a letter, the school would have to add another 25 women in order to be viewed as in compliance with the law.

Steve Malchow, assistant athletic director for communications at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said in order to keep the regulators happy, his department is deeply involved in "roster management." "We are constantly trying to manipulate numbers to reach equity," Malchow said. The school does so by keeping women's teams as full as possible and turning away men looking for walk-on opportunities.

It is this kind of experience repeated in athletic programs at colleges and universities around the country that has led to a call for change. In the hands of zealous government bureaucrats, Title IX has been transformed from a needed tool to open opportunities for women in college athletics to a rigidly applied formula that uses the radical feminist pipe dream that men and women have an equal interest in athletic competition, as the basis for law.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. According to Department of Education guidelines, there are three ways to demonstrate compliance with Title IX: Show that the number of female athletes is substantially proportional to the number of female undergraduates; that athletic opportunities for women are being steadily increased over time; or that the school is meeting the athletic interests of female students.

But schools have learned through hard experience that meeting the proportionality test is the only "safe harbor," and, according to Jessica Gavora, a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Justice and author of the book, Tilting the Playing Field: Schools, Sports, Sex and Title IX, the courts have supported this view.

Gavora points to a 1996 case involving Brown University which was sued after it attempted to demote two womens' varsity teams, the gymnastics and volleyball teams, from university-funded to donor-funded. It didn't matter that the school also demoted the men's water polo and golf teams. According to Gavora, when sued, Brown's women's athletics program was the second most generous in the country. Yet, the university still lost because it had a 13 percent disparity between female athletes and female student enrollment. Gavora said the ruling broadcast that "proportionality is the only means of compliance with Title IX."

While girls' interest in sports has exploded, partly thanks to the impact of Title IX, girls are still not as interested as are boys. These lingering gender tendencies may be due to biology or culture, but either way they are real. To say women must be represented on sports teams relative to their presence in the student body, is social engineering.

For many schools, reaching proportionality has meant dumping men's sports (though clearly some of the thinning has been done for budgetary reasons.) The nonrevenue generating sports where there are no corresponding women's teams have been hit hardest. According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, hundreds of wrestling teams have been cut as a direct and indirect application of Title IX. Out of desperation, the association has sued the Department of Education alleging that the way the law is being enforced discriminates against males. The federal lawsuit includes the experiences of wrestling programs such as that at Marquette University, where the wrestling team was disbanded even though it was fully funded by private donations. The team's continued existence would have thrown the university's Title IX numbers out of whack.

The problem for men's shrinking opportunities is exacerbated because OCR counts only actual participants. If a women's basketball team offers 14 roster spots but only 11 women join, the school only gets credit for the players. So, for every women who is too uninterested in sports to show up, another motivated male athlete has to be shown the door.

Let's hope some sanity will come soon. A special commission constituted by Secretary of Education Roderick Paige has been studying this problem since June. Its recommendations are expected by the end of next month. Hopefully one of them will be to banish proportionality as a test of Title IX compliance. Then, universities would no longer have to worry about being penalized for having an extra man on the field.

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