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."
But proportionality isn't the way to do that, argue the National Wrestling Coaches Association and three wrestling programs that in January sued the Department of Education. They say the agency has wrongly interpreted the law by requiring schools to eliminate men's teams, scholarships, and participation. "We embrace Title IX; it's a very good law," says Mike Moyer, executive director of the wrestling coaches' group, based in Manheim, Pa. "It's poorly interpreted. It was never intended to be a quota program. It's now about too many male athletes being in an athletic department."
There's little doubt that some male athletes are being hurt. Marquette University in Milwaukee eliminated its wrestling program last year, even though the nonprofit Marquette Wrestling Club, one of the plaintiffs suing the Department of Education, funded most of the program through donations. "I've been wrestling since I was 5 years old," says Nathan Challis, a Marquette University senior who was on the wrestling team. "It was a part of my life. It was an extremely tough decision to stay here and not transfer; it was like leaving a part of my life behind."
Trapped. Even revenue-producing teams are being eliminated, which leads some to charge that athletic departments care more about head counts than winning teams. Ron "Sticks" Ballatore, who produced Olympians and NCAA champions as coach for 16 years of the UCLA men's swimming team, says he could have raised enough funds to keep the program but wasn't given a chance. Instead, UCLA cut men's swimming in 1994. "You don't have to drop programs," says Ballatore, who went on to coach at Brown University and the University of Florida, where he now runs the basketball complex. "But it's the easier way for the schools. Then, you're done with it, you don't have to worry about men's sports anymore; you can just add women's sports and make it work."
Athletic administrators feel trapped in the middle. Betsy Stephenson, an associate athletic director at UCLA, first arrived there in 1996, just a couple of seasons after the men's gymnastics and swimming programs were cut. She was charged with overseeing "roster management," in essence seeing how much the school could increase women's participation while carefully controlling the roster size of the men's teams. But that was a flop. "We were getting exhausted coaches of women's programs, because they were running two practices a day to accommodate these women," she says. "We couldn't do it, our coaches couldn't do it, and it wasn't a quality experience."
Some schools are trying to show good faith by paying closer attention to other prongs of Title IX: consistently expanding women's athletics and illustrating that a school "fully and effectively" meets the interest of women in a sport. But these are subjective criteria. Some believe that surveying students more closely for what they want is the answer. "Feminist groups say if you don't build it, they won't come. I think that's misguided," says Christine Stolba, a senior fellow with the Independent Women's Forum, who in 2001 coauthored The Feminist Dilemma: When Success Is Not Enough. "It's equal opportunity for men and women. Once you embrace statistical proportionality in athletics, what's going to stop you from embracing it in chemistry class, dance class? Then where will we be? I think survey data is key. Find out what they want before you build it."
Going backward? Yet the fear of many advocates for women's athletics is that fiddling with proportionality might lead to a return of the bad old days when women's teams were an afterthought. Anita DeFrantz, president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles and the first U.S. woman to serve on the International Olympic Committee, argues that survey data are often meaningless in creating athletic opportunities for women. DeFrantz went to Connecticut College in 1973 on an academic scholarship. One day during her sophomore year she saw the rowing coach carrying a boat across campus. He encouraged her to join the team because she was tall and strong. She did, and three years later, she was an Olympic bronze medalist. "If I had taken an interest test my freshman year," says DeFrantz, "I would not have even known that rowing existed."
Even some of those who oppose the proportionality test say they worry about what would replace it. "As a female who definitely benefited personally and professionally from Title IX, I'm torn," says Terry Crawford, a former track athlete and now director of the track and field teams at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. "It's inappropriate to limit the opportunity of male athletes just to give women athletes opportunity. But I am concerned about giving universities an out not to keep improving their women's programs." Until someone figures out how to reconcile those conflicts, everyone's likely to be paddling upstream.
How they stack up
Gender equity examines progress in providing athletic opportunities for women. It is computed using data from the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act. The first list measures the percentage of women in a school's athlete population. The second list ranks the difference between the percentage of female athletes and their percentage of the student body; a negative number indicates a lower percentage of female athletes than the percentage of female students.
Schools Percent. Difference
Athletes w/ student
1. Drexel University (PA 43.9 +5.3
2. Georgia Institute of Technology 33.7 +5.1
3. Murray State University (KY) 59.5 +2.3
University 48.2 +2.3
5. University of Cincinnati 49.8 +2.1
6. Wright State University (OH) 57.5 +1.9
7. Bradley University (IL) 54.8 +1.6
8. Kansas State University 48.3 +1.2
9. Texas A&M University-College
Station 49.1 +0.5
Lafayette (IN) 42.0 +0.4
11.San Diego State University 56.8 +0.2
12.Central Connecticut State
University 50.2 +0.1
13.University of Dayton (OH) 52.2 - 0.2
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor 50.3 - 0.2
15.Dartmouth College (NH) 48.1 - 0.3
University of Maryland-College
Park 48.8 - 0.3
University of Maryland-Eastern
Shore 57.9 - 0.3
18.University of Richmond (VA) 51.0 - 0.4
19.University of Wisconsin-Madison 52.6 - 0.7
20.Montana State University-Bozeman 44.8 - 0.8
296.Charleston Southern University
(SC) 35.0 -23.8
University of New Mexico 32.5 -23.8
Western Kentucky University 32.6 -23.8
299.Butler University (IN) 38.6 -23.9
300.Furman University (SC) 32.0 -24.0
301.Grambling State University (LA) 33.8 -24.1
302.Chicago State University 46.6 -24.4
Norfolk State University (VA) 39.0 -24.4
304.Alcorn State University (MS) 35.6 -24.5
305.Florida A&M University 32.8 -24.7
University of Southern
Mississippi 35.6 -24.7
307.University of Louisiana-Monroe 36.3 -25.4
University of Memphis 33.1 -25.4
309.Jacksonville State University
(AL) 30.2 -25.9
310.Eastern Michigan University 34.7 -26.0
311.Jackson State University (MS) 36.1 -26.1
312.Morehead State University (KY) 30.9 -26.2
313.Southern Univ. and A&M College
(LA) 30.7 -26.3
314.Southern Utah University 28.6 -27.4
315.Florida Atlantic University 27.4 -31.4
316.Mississippi Valley State
University 31.6 -32.6
The Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act data are for the 2000-2001 academic year. The gender-equity table does not include institutions with overall female enrollment of less than 25 percent, such as the military academies.
This story appears in the March 18, 2002 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.