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Sporting Women

At play in the fields of Title IX.

Apr 29, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 32 • By BETH HENARY
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Tilting the Playing Field
Schools, Sports, Sex and Title IX
by Jessica Gavora
Encounter, 182 pp., $24.95

TITLE IX, passed by Congress thirty years ago, states simply a non-discrimination policy concerning sex: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." But despite this innocuous language, modeled on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Title IX has created an astonishingly broad class of victims--both male and female.

Now in "Tilting the Playing Field: Schools, Sports, Sex and Title IX," Jessica Gavora describes the consequences of a law hijacked by activists who insist on equal outcomes, not equal opportunities. For example, when the U.S. women's World Cup soccer team defeated China in 1999, Time called the victorious women the "daughters of Title IX." The women's movement, feminism, and a federal law--everyone except the athletes themselves--were praiseworthy. "The fact that portraying these remarkable athletes as creatures of entitlement--the welfare queens of the sports world--diminishes their achievement never seems to occur to those feminists who use them for a political agenda," Gavora laments.

Contrary to post-World Cup orthodoxy, women's athletic successes are not largely a result of Title IX. The biggest gains in girls' sports participation were in the 1970s, when Title IX was still largely symbolic. Soccer stars Michelle Akers and Brandi Chastain, both over thirty, rode this rising tide, and most of their contemporaries cultivated their skills in youth leagues, outside the reach of the law.

It was not until the Clinton administration that Title IX was enforced with an eye toward equal results. Norma Cantu, Clinton's Office of Civil Rights chief in the Department of Education, responded to Title IX activists' calls, energetically auditing schools for "compliance."

The device Cantu used to go after schools was an interpretation of Title IX that required them to either demonstrate gender proportionality in athletics, show a continued history of expanding sports opportunities for women, or prove their current program fully satisfied female students' demands. Few schools meet the proportionality standard, as it is well documented that women are less interested in playing sports than men. But when Brown University used this argument to defend itself against a suit brought by a female gymnast whose team was demoted to club status for budgetary reasons, the First Circuit Court of Appeals responded: "Interest and ability rarely develop in a vacuum. . . . To allow a numbers-based lack-of-interest defense to become the instrument of further discrimination against the underrepresented gender would pervert the remedial purpose of Title IX."

The ruling in Cohen v. Brown, which the Supreme Court declined to review, dashed the hopes of colleges who thought they could achieve compliance by showing a history of expansion or satisfied interest. But even with the lucrative scholarships available for women, schools found it nearly impossible to make the percentage of women athletes match that of women in the student body. So, in the early 1990s, they began the only conceivable solution to their dilemma: the elimination of men's athletic teams.

Between 1992 and 1999, 359 sports programs for men were eliminated. Teams cut during that period and since include sixteen college baseball teams (Providence College's Big East champions included), men's swimming and diving at UCLA (a program that had produced twenty-two Olympic medallists), and Miami University men's swimming (out of which diving champion Greg Louganis had come). Where schools have not cut entire programs for men, they have limited the number of walk-ons, almost all male, and scholarships. The Providence baseball team's offer to fund itself was rejected by the school's administration--as, indeed, it had to be, for the problem wasn't money but a need to reduce the number of male athletes.

To read the text of Title IX is to see that Congress never intended this: "Nothing shall be interpreted to require any educational institution to grant preferential or disparate treatment to . . . one sex on account of an imbalance which may exist with respect to the total number or percentage of persons of that sex." But the anti-quota provision in Title IX is utterly ignored these days.