JANUARY 30, 2012
The 1972 federal law known as Title IX was meant to promote gender equality. Why is it so controversial 40 years later?
Katie Thomas| The New York Times
At your high school today, you probably see as many girls playing sports as boys. Chances are you know about the WNBA (Women's National Basketball Association). And maybe you were one of the 14 million Americans who tuned in to watch the final game between the U.S. and Japanese soccer teams at the Women's World Cup in Germany last summer.
The popularity of female sports may seem like a given today, but that wasn't the case before Title IX—a section of the federal Education Amendments of 1972—banned gender discrimination in schools.
When Title IX was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon, women were a minority at colleges and had limited opportunities to play sports in both college and high school.
By nearly all accounts, Title IX has changed all that, boosting female participation in athletics by more than 500 percent at colleges and by nearly 1,000 percent at high schools in the past 40 years.
Nia Oden, 19, a forward for the University of Illinois' basketball team, counts herself among Title IX's successes and believes she wouldn't be playing varsity basketball today without the gender-equity law.
"We all deserve the same resources regardless of our gender," she says.
But though most people agree that Title IX has done a lot to redress gender inequity in sports, the legislation has nonetheless been the source of controversy. Some say the way schools comply with it amounts to a quota system that treats men unfairly, and that it should be reformed.
Corey Wall is among those calling for change. The 23-year-old ran varsity track for the University of Delaware until last January, when the school decided to demote the track and cross-country teams—which celebrated their 100th anniversary last spring—to club status. The reason? The school cited Title IX.
"We felt we were basically being discriminated against because we were men," says Wall, who graduated from the university last month and has a federal civil rights complaint pending against his alma mater. Wall thinks cutting teams to comply with Title IX should always be a last resort and believes his school used Title IX as an excuse to cut his program when the real motive was saving money.
Most colleges try to comply with Title IX by aiming to achieve "proportionality," which means that the ratio of male and female athletes must be roughly equivalent to the overall population of male and female students.
For example, if women make up 60 percent of the students at a given college, 60 percent of the school's athletes must also be women. (High schools must also comply with Title IX but aren't subject to the same compliance tests, so the debate has focused on colleges.)
Instead of spending more on women's sports or trimming the large rosters of moneymaking football teams, however, dozens of schools each year try to fulfill the proportionality requirement by cutting "low-profile" men's teams—sports that don't bring in a lot of money, such as wrestling, gymnastics, swimming, and track.
Russlynn H. Ali, who heads the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which oversees Title IX, says that of the 96 Title IX complaints related to athletics in 2010, 11 involved allegations of discrimination against men.
"Title IX protects against sex discrimination," Ali says. "Traditionally, the underrepresented sex in institutions of higher education has been women. That is changing."
Indeed, women now make up 57 percent of enrollment in U.S. universities. Athletic directors say they've had to trim men's rosters because they've had trouble finding a proportional number of women who want to play sports.
But some aren't convinced by that argument.
"When you hire a coach, their job is to find and recruit and train athletes," says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic swimmer and the senior director of advocacy at the Women's Sports Foundation. "If boys aren't showing up to baseball, you don't say, 'Boys aren't interested in baseball.' You say, 'Well, what's wrong with that program that nobody's showing up for baseball?' "
Counting Men As Women
Each year, schools must report their male and female participation numbers to the Department of Education, and many colleges try to find ways—including sleight of hand—to make these figures look better to avoid bringing about an investigation.
At Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, for example, it's only when the 34 fencers on the women's fencing team take off their protective masks at practice that it becomes clear that 15 of them are men. Men sometimes practice on women's teams if there's no team for their sport, they didn't make the cut for the men's team, or they want to practice a sport without competing.
But Cornell and other schools have been taking advantage of a loophole in the law that allows them to report male practice players as female participants. The university included 19 men on the women's fencing, volleyball, and basketball teams in its 2009-10 numbers. Duke University in North Carolina and Texas A&M University, which won the women's Division I basketball championship in 2011, are among the elite women's basketball teams that also engage in the practice.
Padding female rosters is another trick schools use to show Title IX compliance. At Marshall University in West Virginia, the tennis coach invited three female freshmen to join the team in 2010, even though he knew they weren't good enough to practice, let alone compete, with the rest of the team. He told them they could come to practice whenever they wanted and didn't have to travel with the team.
At the University of South Florida, more than half of the 71 women on the cross-country team failed to run a race in 2009. When asked about it, some laughed and said they didn't even know they were on the team.
"The fraud is disheartening," says Hogshead-Makar of the Women's Sports Foundation. "When an athletic department engineers itself to produce only the appearance of fairness, they flout the law and cheat women."
Tom Rogers, a former captain of the recently cut Delaware track team who graduated in 1989, is also dismayed by the way Title IX is being used. "How did we ever get to a place where a program that is supposed to be about creating opportunities for women is now being used in a way to create no opportunities for women and to cut men?"
Shrinking budgets sometimes spur universities to use these tactics, says Jake Crouthamel, a former Syracuse University athletic director. "It's easier to add more people on a roster than it is to start a new sport," he says.
Football & Cheerleading
They also help explain why football, a huge moneymaker and the pride of many schools, rarely faces cuts. The average Division I football team went from 95 players 30 years ago to 110 players in 2011. Maintaining such a high number of football players means that when a university opts to trim male athletic spots, lower-profile sports wind up on the chopping block.
"Football is the elephant in the whole thing," says Crouthamel. "That's the monster."
One possible solution to the problems with Title IX could come from an unlikely source: cheerleaders. The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) is now considering a proposal to recognize a new version of cheerleading—known as stunt—as an "emerging sport" for women, a precursor to full status as a championship sport. Stunt will look less like traditional cheerleading and more like gymnastics, according to Hogshead-Makar.
If the NCAA approves the proposal, dozens of colleges could begin to fully finance cheerleading teams, recruit scholarship athletes, and send them to a national championship. They would also be able to count the new teams for the purposes of complying with Title IX, which could provide relief to colleges that have struggled to show they are offering enough opportunities for women, who make up 53 percent of students at Division I institutions, but only 46 percent of the athletes.
Like gymnastics or figure skating, says Hogshead-Makar, stunt "is another aesthetic sport that if done right could provide lots more girls with legitimate sports experiences."
As for Corey Wall, the track athlete who graduated from the University of Delaware last month, he plans to keep fighting to get his old team back. He's been working to get the university's board of trustees to revisit the issue and has launched a website called saveudtrack.org, which posts updates on his case and has raised more than $10,000.
And despite the loss of his team last year, Wall says he has no bitter feelings about Title IX.
"It's not against men, it's not against women, it's not for men, it's not for women; it's for equality," he says. "It's just that the Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Education allow schools to do all these crazy things, and it just doesn't make any sense."