On Jan. 30 in Washington D.C., the Commission on Opportunity in Athletics recommended loosening some standards for satisfying Title IX, a landmark gender equality law.
Title IX prohibits gender discrimination in public and private schools that receive federal funding. The law prohibits gender inequality in admissions, recruitment, course offerings, counseling, financial aid, student health and student housing, as well as athletics, where it has fueled the most controversy because of problems with compliance. The Bush administration commission that recommended re-evaluating the law was convened solely to discuss the law’s influence on college athletics.
According to the NCAA’s Title IX regulations — which were part of the 1972 Education Amendments — an institution can achieve parity either through equal funding, equal participation or proof of additional aid to women’s teams.
“I think sometimes the interpretations of enforcing Title IX are a little mechanical, but on the whole, it serves a valuable purpose,” Yale President Richard Levin said.
Women’s ice hockey player Rory Neuner ’03 is a member of the women’s ice hockey team and a vocal campus proponent of gender equality in athletics.
“Women’s sports in this country are, in most situations, still growing and developing, and I think that they still need to be treated as so, which is part of the reason why I didn’t think that Title IX needed to be touched in the first place,” Neuner said.
During the exhausting and contentious two-day conference, the commission considered about two dozen recommendations for examining Title IX. Though the most sweeping recommendations failed to pass, the panel allowed the Education Department to tinker with the ways students and athletes are counted to measure compliance with the law. Currently, schools can comply by having a male-female athlete ratio that is “substantially proportionate” to its male-female enrollment.
“The commission has opened the door for the secretary to do a lot of damage to Title IX,” Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation said. “They changed the way of counting collegiate participation. The number of male athletes will be deflated; the number of female athletes will be inflated.”
One suggested change would establish a preset limit on the number of roster spots on each team that count toward Title IX compliance, rather than the actual number of athletes on a team.
Commission co-chairman Ted Leland, athletic director at Stanford, said the rule would prevent a school from stacking “100 women on the rowing team” to comply with the law.
However, a loophole in that recommendation would allow a school to add dozens of male athletes, specifically non-scholarship walk-ons, beyond the predetermined number without counting them towards Title IX compliance.
“The commission and this review has been a disappointing situation to follow and I think it sends a message to female athletes and how they are valued in our society,” Neuner said. “It’s been pretty clear from the beginning that this particular administration had an agenda in mind when they decided to review Title IX, and that review was just a moniker for changing the law.”
The 15-member commission will send a formal report to Education Secretary Rod Paige in mid-February. Paige has already stated his interest to approach Title IX in a manner that would not penalize men’s teams.
More than 400 men’s athletic teams have been discontinued nationwide as a result of Title IX’s current substantial proportionality requirement. Rather than create new women’s programs, colleges are finding an easier, and legally sound, alternative in eliminating men’s teams.
“There has to be a way to reconcile the two sides,” David Farrell ’03, co-captain of the Yale wrestling club, said. “Gender equality can exist without letting an entire sport become extinct.”
As a sophomore, Farrell placed third at the National Collegiate Wrestling Association championship tournament. Farrell is in a unique position as a member of the wrestling club and a star All-Ivy offensive lineman for the football team.
“The football program is so large that it puts a strain on the other men’s team because there’s not a comparable women’s team in terms of size,” wrestling club co-captain Vincent Panzano ’04 said. “But football also brings in a good deal of publicity and revenue. It’s a difficult situation.”
The 80- to 100-man football roster at most institutions makes it difficult for athletic departments to comply with the substantial proportionality rule of Title IX. Instead, athletic departments often eliminate varsity sports, like wrestling. The Yale athletic department demoted wrestling to club status in 1991.
Farrell calls the existence of the wrestling club “survival, by necessity.”
“The heart behind Title IX is right, but the application of it is incorrect,” he said.
Neuner states that cutting varsity programs like wrestling is an administrative decision that can be avoided, and is disappointed by the proposals put forth by the committee.
“I’m not that hopeful about the changes,” she said. “There are a lot of other aspects to college sports and Title IX that the critics aren’t willing to address, and instead just want to attack the law and the opportunities it provides women with.”
The legislation is often credited for igniting the women’s sports explosion. In 1971, prior to the establishment of the law, only 294,000 girls participated in high school athletics. Since the implementation of Title IX, that number has skyrocketed to 2.8 million in 2002, according to a report by the United States General Accounting Office. During the same period, the number of female athletes in college increased fivefold.
–The Associated Press contributed to this article.