Playing Games

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


The genius of Title IX—and one reason it is so threatening to those who are hostile to a genuinely pluralistic, multiracial society—is that it insists on what legal scholars called "substantive equality" rather than merely "formal equality." That means, explains University of Pittsburgh law professor Deborah Brake—who litigated many Title IX cases as an attorney with the National Women's Law Center in the '90s—that Title IX goes beyond the formalities of offering the same treatment to people who are alike. It doesn't require merely that men's football, say, open up its tryouts to women and then let the "meritocracy" rule by insisting that no discrimination has occurred if men consistently get chosen over women. The law recognizes, instead, that when it comes to athletics, men and women are generally and significantly different in size and strength, so equal access has to be measured in a different, more structural—or substantive—way. Title IX looks for equality in the access to opportunities accorded athletes of both sexes.

Opponents insist that universities conduct surveys to determine student interest in sports and use those numbers as the basis for determining proportional spending, but that misses the substantive work of Title IX, which aims, among other things, to redress a culture that consistently applauds boys for athletic achievement and pours resources in their direction. Is it any wonder that they would express more interest?

illustration: Erik Sandberg

Affirmative action makes a somewhat analogous claim (in addition to the all-important case for diversity), arguing that white and male students are not the same as those who have historically been denied the privileges and access whites and men can take for granted; it seeks a substantive remedy that takes long-standing institutional racism and sexism into account. Insisting on "color blind" admissions policies is a "formal equality" argument that refuses to recognize such structural differences.

Groups like CIR and IWF reject substantive-equality approaches on principle. As they see it, as long as formal barriers are removed—"whites only" signs or quotas limiting women in med schools—racial and gender justice has been achieved. On substance, of course, such a claim is ludicrous. While women represent 53 percent of the undergraduates at Division I colleges, they receive only 41 percent of participation opportunities, 36 percent of athletic operating budgets, and 32 percent of recruiting dollars. Yet, coached by CIR, men in minor sports cry "reverse discrimination," declaring that they are victims of women's sexism when their programs get cut. And similarly, white students who don't get into a college that considers race among other criteria in its admissions policies regard themselves as victims of racial discrimination even as whites continue to occupy the overwhelming majority of positions of privilege in the U.S.—and to be funneled into them through less visible preference programs, like college legacy admissions.

CIR and its fellow travelers cleverly claim harm from civil rights initiatives, employing the very language of civil rights outrages ("quotas," "discrimination"), denying other possible sources of the alleged harm, and declaring irrelevant the larger structural picture.

They make great headway in reframing the terms of the debate for two key reasons. First, quite simply, they play to the underlying racism and sexism that tug tenaciously at the core of American culture. It's not difficult to convince wrestlers that they have been taken to the mat by women—rather than slighted by athletic directors who, nationally, spend over 80 percent of their men's budgets on basketball and football—when the locker room still seethes with suspicions that women don't really belong in sports, the bastion where boys become men.

The fear that women's athletic prowess would somehow diminish men's has fueled efforts to block women's gains from the beginning. Now a staunch supporter, the NCAA actually tried in the 1970s and '80s to limit Title IX's reach into the realm of sports. The NCAA president wrote to President Ford in 1975 saying that Title IX would seriously damage—if not destroy—men's intercollegiate programs. (Around the same time, University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler objected to women's earning letters, asserting that they would devalue the school's "M.") In 1984 the Supreme Court ruled that schools were bound by Title IX only for programs receiving direct federal funds (making it OK to deny women access to science labs if those labs were built, say, with alumni funds). It took several years before Congress passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act, reinstating several anti-discrimination laws that had been gutted by the Reagan administration's broad interpretation of the 1984 ruling. Between 1984 and 1988—when Title IX was not in effect—wrestling lost dozens of teams as the "arms race" in men's basketball and football got underway.

How much more convenient that nowadays women can be blamed. And the mainstream media have been easily spun to tell things that way. Kimberly Schuld—the director of IWF's anti-Title IX campaign—bragged in a letter to leaders of wrestling associations a couple of years ago that the IWF was instrumental in getting a range of publications to cover Title IX from their point of view. She boasted that the producer of a 20/20 episode "was on the phone several times a week" with her and her colleagues, "who directed the tone of the show." And she bragged, "I was a key player with the production staff" of a PBS segment on Title IX, assisting on "how to write the story line." This past December, 60 Minutes aired an extremely lopsided segment with a promo spot as erroneous as it was hyped: "How did what used to be the lion's share for college athletics become the lioness's share?"

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