The fairness factor
Title IX meant more opportunity for female athletes. But should male athletes have to pay?
MARINA DEL REY, CALIF.--The 32 fresh-faced college women rowing their hearts out on a crisp Saturday morning are foot soldiers in America's most bitter sports war, but you wouldn't know it from this peaceful scene. "Starboard, lower your hands a bit," shouts Jaime Goodrich, UCLA's assistant women's crew coach, through a bullhorn, as she casts her gaze on four eight-woman teams of rowers. "Cynthia, watch that buoy. . . . Get a little more extension, a little more reach out of the boat."
It's not exactly the Henley Royal Regatta on the shores of the Thames, but crew is alive and well in this glitzy corner of Southern California. These University of California-Los Angeles students practice at 7 a.m. six days a week here--including Saturday--and then often head for classes and lift weights in the afternoon. That's dedication. But the women's crew also represents sheer numbers. UCLA added varsity women's crew this year not only to provide sporting opportunities but to comply with one of the key requirements of so-called Title IX. It's known as proportionality. That means making sure that the percentage of women in a school's athlete population matches the percentage of women in the overall student body. UCLA made women's crew a varsity sport--several years after adding women's water polo and women's soccer--partly because crew carries a much larger roster than other women's sports. The team has 40 women on the roster; next year there could be 60.
That kind of head counting is at the center of a raging national debate over gender equity in athletics. The issue isn't whether to support women's athletic programs on campus; that has been the law since 1972 when Title IX of the Amendments to the Higher Education Act took effect, requiring equal access to education--including athletics--for women. In that year, only about 32,000 women played on college teams; the most recent count, according to a General Accounting Office report, is about 163,000 women playing 25 varsity sports.
Tennis, anyone? The controversy revolves around how athletic programs have sought to meet Title IX's requirements, especially proportionality, which became the key criterion as the result of a landmark court decision in 1995 involving Brown University's athletic program. In order to achieve proportionality, many schools have in recent years added women's teams, but--partly for budget reasons--plenty have also sought to reach the goal by cutting men's teams and imposing caps on their rosters. Though the number of both men's and women's teams increased overall from 1981 to 1999, according to the GAO report, more than 400 collegiate men's teams were dropped, including a whopping 171 wrestling programs and 84 tennis teams. UCLA is still smarting from the elimination in 1994 of its prestigious men's gymnastics and swimming programs, which had produced Olympians.
The notion that gender equity can mean adding women's opportunities at the expense of those for men has now embroiled conservatives, women's rights advocates, coaches, administrators, and the athletes themselves in a bare-knuckle brawl. Some call this a new "quota system," including noted conservative Jessica Gavora, the author of a new book, Tilting the Playing Field. J. Robinson, the outspoken wrestling coach at the University of Minnesota, says: "We are artificially creating opportunities in college for women for no reason other than the numbers. More than half of our sport has been lost. Why? Because someone is pushing an agenda." On the other side, women's rights advocates say that female athletes are being turned into scapegoats. "Since everyone agrees that women were shut out for too long," says Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center, "there has to be room to give them opportunities."