Playing Games

Title IX Was Always About More Than Sports. So Is the Fight.

Forget about sports for a moment. After all, Title IX—the 1972 law barring sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs—was not just about field hockey. Indeed, the grievance that generated the statute in the first place didn't even mention athletics; it was a class-action complaint on behalf of all women in higher education in America, charging unfair treatment in such realms as admissions, financial aid, hiring, promotion, and salary. Students across the country testified about being rejected from programs of study that allowed only a slim number of slots to be "taken from" men; female faculty told of being repeatedly passed over for promotions because they were not perceived as properly "feminine."

Title IX changed all that—or much of it. According to statistics compiled by the University of Iowa, for example, 25 percent of Ph.D.'s granted to U.S. citizens in 1977 went to women; by 1994, that figure had reached 44. The percentage of medical degrees earned by women leaped from 9 percent in 1972 to 38 percent, and law degrees from 7 to 43 percent. Math and sciences still lag—women make up only 23 percent of physical scientists and 10 percent of engineers. But even those meager numbers represent vast improvements. Without Title IX and other anti-discrimination laws passed in what she calls "the golden age of the '70s," Margaret Rossiter, the author of Women Scientists in America, says hiring would still proceed as a function of "cronyism and decisions made behind closed doors with no accountability."

What's more, Title IX has made sexual harassment actionable on campuses, and it has rendered illegal the shockingly once common practice of kicking women out of school—or at least out of mainstream academic programs—if they become pregnant.

illustration: Erik Sandberg

Title IX, in short, has changed America radically, by opening to girls and women full access to a range of educational opportunities that had been barred for centuries.

All this is important to remember as the fate of Title IX hangs in the balance. Secretary of Education Roderick Paige will issue new guidelines on Title IX enforcement based on the recommendations released in late February by a special commission on gender equity in sport. Wracked by time limitations and by allegations that the commission was stacked with members associated with Division III schools and that the information it was using was incomplete and skewed, it issued recommendations—over the vigorous objections of commissioners Julie Foudy and Donna de Varona—that the National Women's Law Center, for one, fears will "dramatically reduce the participation opportunities and scholarships to which women and girls are entitled."

The commission looked primarily at one of three methods colleges may use to demonstrate their compliance with the law in the area of athletics—showing that the proportion of athletic opportunities for women matches their proportion of the student body generally. Critics of this compliance test claim that it has forced colleges to cut men's wrestling, swimming and diving, gymnastics, and other men's "minor" sports when they can't afford to add new programs for women. But among many grievous lapses, the commission never considered the persistence of discrimination against female athletes that the law was designed to address. Some 80 percent of schools are not living up to the equity the law demands—yet the Office for Civil Rights, which has the power to withhold federal funds from noncompliant institutions, has never done so.

Despite multiple requests from commissioners, the Department of Education did not allow the author of a General Accounting Office study on participation trends to testify, so commissioners did not hear that men's participation opportunities and number of teams have, in fact, continued to increase since Title IX.

So Title IX's defenders are bracing for new regulations from Paige that will likely reduce athletic opportunities for women. What's more, any erosion of the law could have wider-reaching effects. Once the central principle of fairness is weakened, the entire law is vulnerable.

That, in fact, is what the forces behind attacks on Title IX are counting on. Right-wing policy groups—among them, the Center for Individual Rights (CIR) and the Independent Women's Forum (IWF)—have taken aim at Title IX as one more target in their wide offensive against civil rights legislation. The wrestling coaches lining up with them—by scapegoating women for the loss of their programs to behemoth budgets for men's football and basketball—are at best being used. Indeed, according to Laurie Priest, director of athletics at Mount Holyoke College, men's coaches pressing against Title IX have declined invitations to join forces with women to hold back the enormous, distorting expenditures on men's basketball and football. "They said they know it's not really Title IX's fault, but they can't go up against football," says Priest. "They'll use what they can to get attention."

For their part, proponents of Title IX need to recognize how the assault on women's athletics is one more cog in the machinery grinding away at anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action, disability rights legislation, and other laws aimed at genuine equality, and they need to link up with those fighting to preserve all the instruments of equity. As the Supreme Court deliberates on challenges to race as one consideration in admissions to the University of Michigan's undergraduate and law schools, Title IX's supporters have good reason to quake in their Nikes—and to lace up for a strategic team effort.

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