This weekend marked the 35th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark act passed in 1972 that stipulated the following:
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.
Though Title IX applies to all sex-based discrimination in education and has had an enormous impact on women’s enrollment, for example, in undergraduate and graduate professional programs, the act is, of course, most commonly associated with inter-collegiate athletics. And, it has been a lightning rod in debates about college athletics for many years. And, in much of sports media, especially on sports radio, “Title IX” is a four-letter word, and not the good kind. To mark the anniversary of its passage, Outside the Lines devoted a several-minute segment to the issue this past Sunday morning. And, to OTL’s credit, one of the laudatory aspects its piece on Sunday was that, though it allowed room for multiple viewpoints in the debate, OTL took on directly the most common, damning claim made against Title IX: namely, that in order to make room for women’s participation in collegiate athletics, men’s teams are being cut.
It is true, of course, that men’s collegiate teams do get cut. And, certain sports, like wrestling, have been especially hard hit over the past decade or more. OTL profiled James Madison University, which is cutting ten varsity teams this year (three of which were women’s teams), in order to come into compliance with Title IX, including the men’s track and field team, while leaving intact the women’s track and field team.
Last summer, New York Times columnist John Tierney echoed many of the complaints of critics of Title IX (Times Select):
Yes, some women are dedicated athletes, and they should be encouraged with every opportunity. But a lot of others have better things to do, like study or work on other extracurricular activities that will be more useful to their careers. For decades, athletic directors have been creating women’s sports teams and dangling scholarships and hoping to match the men’s numbers, but they’ve learned that not even the Department of Education can eradicate gender differences.
College football is such a mass spectacle that it can’t really be compared with other sports. It’s more of a war rally or religious revival. But football’s unique popularity unfairly penalizes men because colleges fear flunking the “proportionality” test, which is the safest way to comply with Title IX. If the school doesn’t have enough female athletes to offset the huge football squad, it has to cut other men’s teams — or get rid of football, as some schools have done.
This argument – that athletic departments cut men’s programs because Title IX forces them to – obscures a much more complex reality. And, OTL quoted NCAA President Myles Brand at length during the piece to the effect that Title IX has become a convenient scapegoat for athletic departments that for budgetary, or other reasons, are looking to axe non-revenue generating programs. As OTL notes, there is, in fact, a three-pronged test for compliance with Title IX. These are:
1) “substantial proportionality” – whereby a school shows that it is providing comparable opportunities for participation by roughly comparable spots on varsity teams.
2) “history and continuing practice”—looking at an institution’s “good faith expansion of athletic opportunities through its response to developing interests of the underrepresented sex at that institution.”
3) accommodating interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex- requiring the institution to gauge level of interest in men’s and women’s athletics and provide opportunities in accordance with that expressed level of interest. So, in theory, according to the third prong, if a school only offers 30% of its varsity spots to women’s teams, but that matches the level of interest, then a school would be deemed to be in compliance.
(as an interesting side note, one justification Western Kentucky University gave for bumping its football program from I-AA to I-A status, effective in 2007, was that it was spending too much on women’s athletics, and therefore was not in compliance with Title IX. The extra twenty-two scholarships for football, the Board of Regents noted, would close that gap).
Debates about Title IX often begin and end with the first prong, the proportionality test. But, the best evidence is that a majority of schools actually satisfy Title IX’s requirements via prong three. In some cases, when proportionality is invoked, it’s transparent that other considerations are at work. One egregious example concerned BU football, which in 1997 cancelled its football program after ninety-one seasons. In an angry article for Sports Illustrated at the time (that I incorrectly attributed to Rick Reilly last summer), Gerry Callahan wrote that:
Boston University played football for 91 years before some astute administrators discovered two very disturbing facts about the game:
1. It costs money.
2. Women don’t play it.
Armed with such damaging revelations, high-ranking school officials suggested last month that the board of trustees eliminate the sport. A vote was taken. The plug was pulled on the football program, and part of a university died.
It’s commonly argued that Title IX is nonsensical because it diverts resources from men’s sports, which make money, to women’s sports which, with very few exceptions, do not. But, this almost never what actually happens. Men’s football only makes a profit a small percentage of those schools that have a football program. But, I have yet to hear of an example of a net revenue-generating men’s football program that got cut. And, it’s striking how, when football programs like those at BU are bleeding the university dry (BU’s division I-AA program was operating at a nearly $3 million loss in 1997), suddenly economic arguments go out the window, to be replaced by encomiums about all the great life lessons football teaches its participants.
Callahan did rightly note that then-Chancellor John Silber had wanted to rid BU of football for a long time. In fact, according to Callahan, Silber hated BU football from the moment he arrived in 1970 (two years before the passage of Title IX). But, the point is this: there is no evidence that BU was facing any serious enforcement action from the federal government, nor litigation, because of football. A Division I-AA team that has gone 2-18 in its previous two seasons, and is losing three million bucks a year is a prime candidate for the axe in a cost-conscious era, with or without Title IX. Title IX may have made it easier for Silber to justify his decision, but he had everything he needed to dump football without it.
In fact, as I noted last summer, the Bush administration clarified the three-pronged test in 2005, specifically facilitating the circumstances under which prong three could be used to comply. According to the rules clarification, a school can administer an internet survey and if the results suggests that women are substantially less interested than men in participating in varsity athletics, the proportionality test becomes moot.
There’s no doubt that Title IX has had an enormous impact on women’s participation in college athletics. I am sure many of you have seen the numbers. Before Title IX’s passage, there were perhaps 16,000 women in inter-collegiate athletic programs. By 2001, there were more than 150,000. By last year, that number had jumped to about 180,000. And, spending on women’s collegiate athletics has sky-rocketed. According to 2001 data, spending on women’s athletics exceeded $900 million.
But, a few points are worth making. First, even if the proportionality test were the only viable means of meeting Title IX’s requirements, it would does not automatically follow that it’s the “fault” of women athletes and their advocates. The 800-poind gorilla in the room of college athletics is football and, as many critics have pointed out, it’s questionable why college football teams need to dole out 85 scholarships and accommodate over one hundred players. As is common knowledge, a small percentage of Division I programs actually makes a profit. For many more, football is a significant drain on resources. Tierney, quoted above, gets it wrong when he says that football is unfair to men. It’s unfair to male athletes who don’t play football, and unfair to women athletes who get scapegoated for that 800-pound gorilla smashes a lot of the furniture in the room. Second, even with the tremendous closing of the gap in men’s and women’s participation in college athletics, according to 2001 data (not substantially different now), for every one dollar spent on women’s sports, almost two dollars are spent on the men. So, when it comes to the bottom line, male athletes are still king. Again, football plays a major role in this disparity. Third, according to an article in the New York Times by Bill Pennington (also Times Select, sorry), several dozen schools, especially in Division Three, have added football programs in the last decade. Since D-III schools don’t pay scholarships, those football programs are not costly and administrators believe, have some positive impact on enrollment. The schools that have been most likely to cut football programs have been at scholarship-granting schools, where costs become a serious problem. Also of note is that, according to Pennington, adding football teams has thrown many schools out of compliance with Title IX, at least according to the proportionality test. However, given the relatively lax state of enforcement, this has not been a deterrent. Finally, of interest is the fact that, as women’s athletics have become much more popular, there has been a major change in the profile of the typical coach of a women’s team. In 1977, 90% of coaches of all women’s teams were women. By 2004, that figure had dropped to 44%. So, at least for some men, Title IX has been quite a boon.
Collegiate athletics is now a multi-billion dollar business and there is enormous pressure on athletic departments, in schools large and small, to figure out ways to allocate judiciously their resources. And, those pressures are taking place in a changed world, one in which women now have a much greater claim on resources than was the case three decades ago. Title IX is not the only, or even in many cases, the dominant factor in determining what programs thrive and what programs wither on the vine. But, especially in the male-dominated world of sports media, it remains awfully easy to blame the women.