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The Gender Refs

Saturday, November 1, 1997

Federal Regulators want equal opportunity for female collegiate athletes. Do they care whether colleges have to cut men’s teams to achieve it?

When the men’s varsity swimming and diving team at the University of California at Los Angeles performed in competition, they gave spectators more than a glimpse of athletic grace--they showed how disciplined greatness can emerge from eager but untrained youth. The team consistently finished among the nation’s top 10. Over the years, it had secured 41 national titles in individual events and a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship. Members of the squad have won an astonishing 22 Olympic medals.

No more. The Olympic-size pools at UCLA are now closed to the male swimmers who set so many records there. In an apparent effort to achieve "gender equity" in collegiate athletics, university officials dropped the men’s squad in 1993, making room for women’s teams in soccer and water polo. The UCLA team was one of 16 NCAA men’s swimming squads eliminated since 1993.

These programs join more than 200 men’s athletics teams eliminated nationwide over the last several years. According to a survey by the NCAA, that amounts to a net loss of more than 17,000 opportunities for men in collegiate athletics.

Many of these teams are victims of misguided egalitarianism. Colleges and universities are misapplying a federal anti-discrimination statute to artificially equalize the number of men and women participating in collegiate athletics. Thanks to pressure from the Clinton administration and the federal courts, schools are destroying men’s athletics programs across the country. They are capping the sizes of teams, terminating long-standing programs, and driving thousands of male students off the playing fields. And they are doing so without regard to the level of interest in sports demonstrated by female students or to the resources of the schools they attend.

The source of this mischief is a distorted interpretation of Title IX, enacted by Congress as part of the 1972 Education Amendments. Intended to ensure that schools do not discriminate in providing athletic opportunities for their students, it states that "no person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal aid." On the face of it, it was a benign anti-discrimination statute.

In the hands of federal judges and officials at the U.S. Department of Education, however, the statute has become toxic for collegiate athletics. The department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has decided to judge compliance with the law not by whether colleges are practicing clear-cut discriminating but rather by they are failing to achieve "proportionality." In this case, proportionality means attaining a gender ratio among varsity athletes equal to that of the student body.

If that sounds like a quota, it is. Though the OCR’s interpretation of the law was first issued in 1979, its application remained uncertain due to a Supreme Court decision in the mid-1980s. The mass elimination of men’s teams began in the 1990s. "It’s become really horrific since Clinton came into office," says Leo Kocher, a professor and wrestling coach at the University of Chicago. "The people in the OCR have really begun to interpret this as a quota law."

Federal courts have been only too eager to go along, cementing proportionality into law. Consider Cohen v. Brown, the most prominent Title IX case so far, which the Supreme Court declined to review this spring. After Brown University eliminated two men’s and two women’s teams for budgetary reasons, female athletes sued in 1992 seeking to reinstate the women’s teams.

Federal district judge Raymond Pettine ruled, and the appeals court affirmed, that as long as the proportion of women athletes was lower than the proportion of women students, Brown could not eliminate viable women’s teams. Pettine further ordered Brown to "balance" its athletic program so that the proportion of female athletes equaled the proportion of female students. Other cases involving Colorado State University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, among others, have yielded substantially similar results.

"Title IX is being applied as an affirmative action statute requiring a certain quota of female athletes," says Anita Blair, general counsel at the Independent Women’s Forum, "Congress never, ever intended it to be interpreted in this manner."

Capping Men’s Teams

One way to achieve proportionality at a university is to place limits on the number of players on men’s teams. Penn State, San Francisco State, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Colorado are just some of the schools that have placed such caps on men’s participation. Coach T.J. Kerr’s wrestling team at California State University at Bakersfield was capped at 25 members; he used to carry 37.

"You really need a large team," he says. "Nobody [gets cut] in wrestling, because the sport is so difficult physically that the athletes drop out on their own." David Marsh, the coach of men’s and women’s swimming at Auburn University, says he’s "under a lot of pressure to keep the men’s numbers down. I’ve had to turn down men who I otherwise would have kept on the team in order keep the numbers off."

"When they cap men’s teams, then you know it’s purely to satisfy a quota," Kocher says. "When you get rid of those last seven guys, the savings is negligible--they’re nonscholarship, they probably wouldn’t make the traveling team. They’re just out there for the love of the sport."

Many teams, even those that excel, also face capricious budget cuts. Kerr’s team at Bakersfield, for example, boasted four All-American wrestlers and placed third as a team in the 1996 NCAA wrestling championships. Now it’s struggling to survive thanks to gender-driven budgeting. "They’ve cut my budget by 60 percent" Kerr says. "It’s really put a damper on my program." It has affected the lives of his players as well. "Last year I had to cut 10 guys that I was planning to have wrestle for me. They couldn’t even practice with the team. Those kids left the school within a year."

The pursuit of gender "equity" in athletics makes little sense at a school like Bakersfield. Its student body is 64 percent female, but many of these women are students in their 40s or 50s who married young, had families, and later returned to college. Few exhibit any interest in participating in varsity athletics. But after the National Organization for Women (NOW) sued the California State University system in 1993, Bakersfield agreed to achieve proportionality in finance and participation by the 1988-89 school year.

At the time of the consent decree between NOW and the university system, 60 percent of varsity athletes at Bakersfield were male. "They were going to have to reverse that within five years," Kerr explains. To reach that goal, he says, the president recommended the elimination of men’s wrestling and swimming teams last year. "They were trying to cut our two best sports--our flagship teams."

The team was saved temporarily, Kerr says, but "we’re still fighting for our lives." He says the athletic department told him he would have to raise all the money for new scholarships himself. But after he set up an endowment for the team, he was told he couldn’t use those funds. "They would have to increase expenditures for the women’s teams," Kerr explains, "and they can’t find the money to do that."

Decapitating Programs

Bakersfield’s teams may have escaped the axe for now, but scores of men’s teams have not. Indeed, eliminating men’s teams---or demoting them and leaving them to wither away--is becoming the modus operandi of college officials eager to submit to federal regulators.

Consider the wrestling team at the State University of New York at Albany. Two years ago Albany cut wrestling, along with men’s tennis, men’s swimming, and women’s swimming. Former coach Joe DeMeo has no doubt that compliance with Title IX was the motive for eliminating his team. "My athletic director said it was gender equity," he says. DeMeo’s team had been another success story, producing five Olympians and suffering only one losing season over the past 18 years. "My athletes were tremendously disappointed," DeMeo says. "They worked really hard to keep the team alive."

Another successful program to die was UCLA’s men’s gymnastics team. It was demoted in 1993 to club status, where it receives minimal funding and cannot compete in NCAA championships. This program had produced, among others, Peter Vidmar, the winner of two gold medals and a silver medal at the 1984 Olympic games.

"The chancellor of the university told me personally that the team was cut so that [UCLA] could fall in line with Title IX," Vidmar says. "The gymnastics team was about second in the country when it was cut, and it had the highest academic average in the athletic department. But apparently these were not valid criteria for keeping the team." Vidmar is concerned about the future of his sport in this country. "I’m excited about all the opportunities for my daughters," he said, "but unless things change, my sons won’t have a place to compete in gymnastics--there won’t be any teams left."

With the strict by-the-numbers approach of proportionality, says Bob Boettner, the executive director of the College Swimming Coaches Association, "it’s become a simple equation--you either add women’s sports or you eliminate men’s sports. When administrators are faced with making ends meet, they’ll do the latter." Sports that do not generate income from ticket sales or other sources--so-called nonrevenue sports--are usually the first to go: Between 1994 and 1996, NCAA schools eliminated 31 golf programs, 16 swimming programs, 22 tennis programs, 60 track programs, and 24 wrestling programs.

One of the few men’s sports nearly immune to elimination is football. "Schools are not going to mess with their football teams," Kocher says. "Those are the big money makers."

Because most athletic departments spend a large portion of their budgets on their football programs, the sport has often been the target of feminists. Donna Lopiano of the Women’s Sports Foundation has repeatedly lambasted universities for sacrificing women’s sports and men’s non-revenue sports in order to protect their football and basketball programs. But football and basketball bring in extra cash for many athletic departments, providing funds for both men’s and women’s nonrevenue sports. NCAA data indicates that, in Division I-A, men’s football and basketball generated income well in excess of their expenses. For all other sports, however, the reverse was true. In addition, many of the most thriving women’s programs, such as those at Iowa and Ohio State, are found at schools with successful, profitable football teams.

What Women Want?

As men’s opportunities disappear in the name of proportionality, mounting evidence suggests that women students may have less interest than men in participating in collegiate athletics. Disparities in the participation level of men and women exist even where the charge of historic discrimination against women would be very hard to support.

Vassar College, for example, is a former women’s college that turned coeducational in 1969. Although its student population is 60 percent female, only 47 percent of its 299 varsity athletes are women--a proportionality gap of 13 percentage points. "We’ve had a lot of open spots that were not occupied on the rosters of women’s teams," says Andy Jennings, the director of athletics.

In Auburn’s swimming program, which maintains a men’s team of 26 and a women’s team of 21, the coach has had difficulty enlarging his women’s team. "We’re encouraged to increase women’s participation," says Marsh, "but it’s difficult. There’s substantially less interest on the women’s side."

Mary Curtis, the associate athletic director and the coordinator of Title IX compliance at the University of Iowa, says that she has little difficulty attracting qualified female athletes. "There are more than enough athletes out there," she says. "But if you don’t spend the recruiting money, you’re not going to get the athletes."

But Marsh’s experience suggests that money is not the only issue. Auburn offers 14 scholarships for female swimmers and only 10 for men, but still has fewer female swimmers. Marsh sees a clear unfairness in the allocation of scholarship funds. "An Olympic-level athlete on the men’s side will receive significantly less than a female athlete of comparable ability. It’s discouraging to the men, and it’s not the greatest for the dynamics between my two teams."

In its defense in the Cohen case, Brown University submitted evidence suggesting that the pool of interested, qualified female athletes at the university and in the nation at large is significantly smaller than that for males. The evidence included a 1992 survey by the National Federation of State High Schools Association, which found that 3.5 million boys but only 2 million girls were members of high school varsity teams.

Brown also submitted for evidence College Board questionnaires filled out by high-school students who had taken the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). Among SAT takers who had requested that their scores be sent to Brown, 50 percent of the male students, but only 30 percent of the women students, had expressed interest in participating in athletics. Brown’s applicants at the time were more than 50 percent female, but of the applicants expressing interest in sports, less than 45 percent were women. And at Brown, as in the nation at large, the participants in intramural athletics, which are open to all students, are overwhelmingly male.

Such a survey of students’ interest in athletics may not be an accurate measurement of the number who actually plan, and have the training and ability, to play on a varsity athletic team. Together with the data on high school and intramural participation, however, this evidence strongly suggests a real disparity in the levels of interest of each sex--one that would naturally lead to a gap in the number of male and female varsity athletes. But the proportionality requirement declares, in effect, that interest and ability do not matter. If not enough women can be encouraged to play sports, schools will have to cut down on male participation.

A Good Idea Turns Sour

As it was originally written, Title IX did not create this problem. According to many who have been involved in women’s athletics since the 1970s, Title IX has been a strong, constructive force propelling the growth of women’s athletics. Charlotte West, a former president of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, says that women’s teams received "next to nothing from the universities" before Title IX. The funding and attention given to women’s teams was "minuscule" compared with the men’s, she says. "The treatment of women’s teams by the universities was atrocious." West attributes much of the change of the past 25 years to Title IX, saying that "until the potential threat was there, it was difficult to get them to move."

In the decade after the passage of Title IX, women’s collegiate sports boomed. The 1970s saw large gains in the number of women’s teams, in the number of participants, and in funding. But recently, growth in the total number of female collegiate athletes nearly stopped, suggesting that the proportionality requirement is doing more to eliminate opportunities for male athletes than to benefit women.

The numbers tell the story. The NCAA’s Gender-Equity Study, released in April 1997, shows a drop in male collegiate participants that is several times the increase in female athletes. Between 1994 and 1997, NCAA members cut at least 230 men’s programs. From this data, Chicago’s Leo Kocher calculates that the 902 NCAA schools lost more than 20,000 opportunities for men to participate in college sports, and gained 5,800 for women.

That averages out to 3.6 men dropped for each woman added. At this rate, the drive for proportionality will even out the number of spots for men and for women at 116,000 apiece--a net loss of 76,000 opportunities for men and a net gain for women of 22,000 after 1992.

Taking the Low Road

Fearing a lawsuit or an OCR "compliance review," college administrators have been all too ready to dispose of men’s teams to meet the federal requirements. "I think many schools have misinterpreted Title IX, and I think they’ve taken the easy way out," says Jean Freeman at the University of Minnesota. She blames universities for "not using their creativity. They don’t want to spend their time and energy, so they cut men’s teams." Anne James, the women’s swimming coach at the University of Arkansas, which dropped its men’s team several years ago, agrees that "they’re meeting the letter of the law, but not the spirit." Says Kocher, "The law is creating an enormous incentive for the elimination of male athletes."

At the heart of this scandal is the ascendancy of the strict proportionality requirement, slipped into the law by the OCR’s 1979 policy interpretation. This requirement is found nowhere in the language of the original statute. In fact, Title IX explicitly states that nothing within the law should "be interpreted to require any educational institution to grant preferential or disparate treatment to one sex on account of an imbalance which may exist" in the numbers of each sex participating in a certain activity. Nor do the 1975 Title IX regulations, issued by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to flesh out the statute, mandate proportionality. On the contrary, these regulations require that schools examine "whether the selection of sports and levels of competition effectively accommodate the interests and abilities of members of both sexes."

Under the current interpretation, however, the respective "interests and abilities" of the two sexes are deemed irrelevant to the apportioning of varsity spots. In fact, Judge Pettine in Cohen v. Brown refused to admit much of Brown’s statistical evidence related to the issue of interest and ability. "Even if it can be empirically demonstrated that, at a particular time, women have less interest in athletics than do men," wrote the judge, "such evidence, standing alone, cannot justify providing fewer athletic opportunities for women than for men." Such a ruling surely represents the triumph of ideology over fairness.

The Holy Grail

Even if proportionality were desirable, university data suggests that it is not an attainable ideal. Many schools already have more women’s teams than men’s. This was true of Brown even at the time of its Title IX lawsuit. Stanford University has 17 women’s teams and 15 men’s teams; the University of Iowa maintains 12 and 10, respectively. The Southeastern Conference requires its member schools to have at least two more women’s sports than men’s. Some institutions have begun to add teams in what the NCAA terms "emerging sports for women"--such as bowling and synchronized swimming--that are unlikely to generate as much participation as the baseball or wrestling teams they effectively supplanted.

This year the total number of women’s teams in the NCAA actually exceeded the total number of men’s teams. Despite this effort, however, very few schools have actually achieved proportionality. Brown still had a gap between the female proportion of students and that among athletes of 13.1 percentage points in 1992, the year of the lawsuit. In 1995, women’s athletic participation at Stanford was still below 45 percent. Iowa is still not within 5 percentage points of proportionality. UCLA has 9 men’s and 11 women’s teams, but according to its athletic department, "We’re not fully in compliance with Title IX yet." In fact, a USA Today study identified only nine NCAA Division I schools where the percentage of women athletes comes close to or exceeds the percentage of female students. Three of these are military schools where women comprise 15 percent or less of the student body.

Why is proportionality so difficult to achieve? The lesser interest of female students is clearly a factor. Another is the large size of football teams, which places schools at an immediate disadvantage. At big-time football schools, teams often have as many as 120 members; no other sport, men’s or women’s, is comparable. In order to equalize the numbers, schools would need three or four more women’s teams than men’s (hence varsity bowling and synchronized swimming).

A barrier to achieving financial proportionality is the complicated system by which schools raise money for teams. Many teams receive money directly from booster clubs and alumni donors. Furthermore, certain teams require more funding simply because of the equipment that the sport requires. The Javits Amendment of 1974 directed that Title IX regulation must include "reasonable provisions considering the nature of particular sports," but this is an instruction that the OCR has largely ignored.

In his Cohen v. Brown decision, Pettine ruled that Brown could comply with Title IX in three ways. It could "elevate or create the requisite number of women’s positions," it could "demote or eliminate the requisite number of men’s positions," or it could "eliminate its athletic program altogether." Thankfully, schools have not chosen to take the third route. But, at a time when many universities are in financial distress, they have often been compelled to take the second. The federal interpretation has set up an artificial, clumsy, thoughtlessly egalitarian standard. The effort to achieve this standard is destroying men’s athletic programs and eliminating men’s opportunities across the nation.