Today's Op-Ed in the New York Times, "Wrestling with Title IX" by John Irving: (My Letter to the Editor in response to this piece is posted below it)
January 28, 2003
Wrestling With Title IX
By JOHN IRVING
Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs receiving federal assistance, may be in for an overhaul. This week a committee appointed by the Bush administration will hold its final meetings before submitting its recommendations for changing the law to Secretary of Education Rod Paige. Since Title IX was enacted in 1972, it has been the subject of debate — much of it misguided — about its application to college athletics. At issue now is how to alter the law — or not — so that, as Secretary Paige has put it, we can find ways of "expanding opportunities to ensure fairness for all college athletes."
I hope the commission will realize that what's wrong with Title IX isn't Title IX. What's wrong is that, in practice, there are two Title IX's. The first Title IX was the one passed by Congress in 1972 to put an end to sex discrimination in schools — good for the original Title IX! The second Title IX, the one currently enforced, is the product of a policy interpretation in 1979 by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (but never debated or approved by Congress) — and which is functioning as a gender quota law.
In its prohibition against sex discrimination, the 1972 law expressly states as "exceptions" any "preferential or disparate treatment because of imbalance in participation" or any "statistical evidence of imbalance." In English, this means that Congress recognized that the intent of Title IX was not to establish gender quotas or require preferential treatment as reparation for past discrimination. Smart thinking — after all, the legislation was intended to prohibit discrimination against either sex.
But what happened in 1979 — and in subsequent re-evaluations of the law — has invited discrimination against male athletes. The 1979 interpretation required colleges to meet at least one of the following three criteria: that the number of athletes from each sex be roughly equivalent to the number of students enrolled; that colleges demonstrate a commitment to adding women's sports; and that they prove that the athletic interests of female students are effectively accommodated. The problems lie in complying with the first criterion. In order to achieve gender proportionality, men's collegiate sports are being undermined and eliminated. This was never the intention of Title IX.
The proportionality rule stipulates that the ratio of male to female athletes be proportionate to the ratio of male to female students at a particular college. On average, females make up about 56 percent of college enrollment, males 44 percent; for most colleges to be in compliance with proportionality, more than half the athletes on team rosters must be women. Can you imagine this rule being applied to all educational programs — classes in science, engineering, accounting, medicine or law? What about dance, drama or music — not to mention women's studies?
In 1996, the Department of Education further bolstered the proportionality zealots by requiring colleges to count every name on a team's roster — scholarship and nonscholarship athletes, starters and nonstarters. It is this ruling that has prompted a lawsuit by the National Wrestling Coaches Association, the Committee to Save Bucknell Wrestling, the Marquette Wrestling Club, the Yale Wrestling Association, and the National Coalition for Athletics Equity, all of whom argue that the 1996 rules exceed the Department of Education's statutory authority "by effectively mandating the very discrimination that Title IX prohibits."
Why are wrestlers so upset about this? The number of collegiate wrestling programs lost to Title IX compliance is staggering; this is especially alarming because, since 1993, wrestling has been a rapidly growing sport at the high-school level. Data compiled by Gary Abbott, director of special projects at USA Wrestling, indicates that in 2001, there were 244,984 athletes wrestling in high school; only 5,966 got to wrestle in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Not to put too fine a point on it: there is only one N.C.A.A. spot for every 41 high-school wrestlers. The numbers have been going downhill for a while. In 1982, there were 363 N.C.A.A. wrestling teams with 7,914 wrestlers competing; in 2001, there were only 229 teams with fewer than 6,000 wrestlers. Yet, in that same period, the number of N.C.A.A. institutions has increased from 787 to 1,049. No wonder wrestlers are unhappy.
As for the virtual elimination of walk-ons (nonscholarship athletes) in many men's sports, and the unrealistic capping of male team rosters — again, to make the number of male athletes proportional to the number of females — the problem is that athletic programs are going to absurd lengths to fill the unfilled rosters for women's teams. But women, statistically, aren't interested in participating in intercollegiate athletics to the degree that men are. J. Robinson, wrestling coach at the University of Minnesota, cites intramural sports, which are wholly interest driven, as an example. In a column about Title IX published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robinson wrote that "men outnumber women 3-1 or 4-1 on the intramural field."
Don't we need to know the exact numbers for how many women are interested in playing college sports now? But the Women's Sports Foundation, an advocacy group that favors maintaining proportionality, opposes conducting surveys of incoming students — that is, expressly to gauge interest in athletics. These surveys, they say, would force "female athletes to prove their interest in sports in order to obtain the right to participate and be treated fairly." But men would fill out the same surveys.
One suggestion that the presidential commission is considering is counting the available spots on teams, rather than the actual participants. The Women's Sports Foundation rejects this idea, arguing that it counts "ghost female participants." However, the foundation has no objection to counting interest that isn't there.
In fact, those women's groups opposed to tampering with either the 1979 interpretation or the 1996 ruling, which endorses the proportionality arm of Title IX, often argue that there are three ways (at least on paper) for an institution to comply with Title IX — not just proportionality. But only proportionality can be measured concretely. A 1996 clarification letter from the Department of Education refers to the proportionality test as a "safe harbor" — meaning that this simple-to-apply numerical formula can assure an athletic director and a university president that their institution is in compliance and not subject to legal action. In other words, proportionality is not only wrong — it's lazy.
Some women's advocates argue that it is not proportionality that forces athletic directors to cut men's teams; they blame the budget excesses of Division I football and men's basketball. But there are countless examples where money was not the issue in the case of the sport that was dropped. Marquette University had a wrestling team that was completely financed by alumni and supporters; yet the sport was dropped in 2001, to comply with gender equity. (Marquette has no football team.)
Boston College dropped three sports that had only part-time coaches and offered no scholarships; these sports could easily have been sponsored by fund-raising. Keep in mind, too, that the majority of male college teams dropped in the 1990's were from Division II and Division III programs, which don't have big-time football or men's basketball.
Furthermore, many Division I football and basketball programs earn millions of dollars a year, enough to support all the other sports programs — men's and women's. Moreover, most schools with high-profile football programs are schools where women's teams have thrived. (Witness the Big 10, the S.E.C., the Big 12 and other Division I athletic conferences, which have produced both winning football teams as well as great women's teams in other sports.)
While eliminating men's sports like wrestling, where the interest in participation is increasing, athletic programs go begging to find women athletes to fill the vacancies on an ever-expanding number of women's teams.
One of the most ludicrous examples of this was the attempt by Arizona State University in Tempe — a cactus-studded campus in the middle of the Sonoran Desert — to add a competitive women's rowing team. There's not a lot of water in Arizona. But the school asked the city to create a body of water (by flooding a dry gulch) on which the team could practice. Because of a lack of funds, the school had to drop the plan. This is probably just as well; taxpayer dollars would have financed scholarships either to rowers from out of state or to teach Arizona women (most of whom have never held an oar) how to row. But Arizona State is to be commended. It not only worked to meet the numerical demands of proportionality, it tried to adhere to the original spirit of Title IX by adding opportunities for women, not by cutting opportunities for men.
To apply the rule of proportionality to men's and women's collegiate athletics amounts to a feminist form of sex discrimination. And I won't be dismissed by that other argument I've heard (ad nauseam) from those women's advocates unwilling to let proportionality go — namely, that to oppose proportionality, or even the crudest enforcement of Title IX to eliminate men's sports programs, is tantamount to being antifeminist and hostile to women in sports. Don't try to lay that on me.
I am a women's advocate. I have long been active in the pro-choice movement; my principal political commitment is my longstanding and continuing role as an abortion-rights advocate. But I'm also an advocate of fairness. What is unfair is not Title IX — it is Title IX's enforcement of proportionality, which discriminates against men.
In 1992, Brian Picklo, a walk-on, asked the Michigan State Wrestling coach, Tom Minkel, if he could try out for the team. Picklo had wrestled for only two years in high school and never qualified for state tournaments. Minkel thought Picklo's chances of wrestling in the Big 10 were "slim to none." But Picklo became a two-time Division I All-American, and he won the Big 10 title at 190 pounds. In most wrestling programs across the country today, Brian Picklo wouldn't be allowed to be a walk-on.
Title IX, the original legislation, was conceived as a fairness-for-all law; it has been reinvented as a tool to treat men unfairly. Advocates of proportionality claim that universities that are not "proportional" are breaking the law, but they're not breaking the original law.
The Women's Sports Foundation has accused the presidential commission of politicizing Title IX. But Title IX was politicized by the Department of Education in 1979 and 1996 — during Democratic administrations. Is it only now political because a Republican administration is taking a closer look at the way Title IX is applied? (I make this criticism, by the way, as a Democrat. I'd have a hard time being an abortion rights advocate in the Bush administration, wouldn't I?)
Based on 2001 membership data — raw data from the National Federation of State High Schools, and from the N.C.A.A. — for every single N.C.A.A. sports opportunity for a woman, there are 17 high school athletes available to fill the spot; for a man, there are 18. Isn't that equal enough? In fact, women have more opportunity to compete in college than men do. Yet the attitude represented by the Women's Sports Foundation, and other women's groups, is that women are far from achieving gender equity; by their continuing endorsement of proportionality in collegiate athletics, these women's advocates are being purely vindictive.
Years ago, I was playing in a Little League baseball game when an umpire made what I thought was a memorable mistake. Later, in another game, he made it again. I realized it was no mistake at all — he meant to say it. Instead of hollering "Play ball!" at the start of the game, this umpire shouted "Play fair!"
Keep Title IX; eliminate proportionality. Play fair.
My letter to the Editor in response:
To the Editor:
I take serious exception with John Irving’s January 28, 2003 Op-Ed piece "Wrestling with Title IX."
Title IX was created because we lived—and continue to live—in a man-centric world. Mr. Irving only serves to exacerbate this point by arguing in defense of male "victims" of Title IX as he views its application today.
The bottom line is that Title IX is not about men. It is about increasing the opportunities for women in athletics that were virtually non-existent before its inception. He argues that "statistically," "women aren’t interested in participating in intercollegiate athletics to the degree that men are." Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center (a major Title IX creator and supporter) effectively speaks out against this narrow-minded viewpoint when she expresses the danger in this thought process. After all, according to Ms. Greenberger, if we accept that premise how long will it take before we start believing again that girls don't want to work in math or science or tech, since lower numbers of women are involved in those fields?
The idea that (female) participation relates not to encouragement from an early age (let’s not forget that women started in 1972—only thirty years ago—from virtually nothing) but to lack of interest in sports or any area of life is a shocking gender stereotype from a person who purports to be a "woman’s advocate."