Once it was women athletes and their coaches suing under Title IX to ensure that women had equal access to college educational and sports facilities. Now men and their coaches are lobbying Congress, saying that women’s advances have unjustly deprived men.

Olympics 2000

This week, 3,000 U.S. women athletes take their place in Sydney, Australia, determined to bring home an unprecedented number of Olympic gold medals in sports ranging from archery to weight lifting.

At the same time, pressure is building in Washington to alter the law that made it possible for record numbers of women to participate in sporting events. Once it was women who were bringing suit on grounds of discrimination; now men are suing for the same reason and arguing that Title IX is responsible.

A loose-knit coalition of college coaches lobbied their various congressional representatives last week to gain support for changing a controversial element of Title IX, the federal law that bars sex discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. Title IX refers to the 1972 Education Amendments to the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act.

The coaches object to the current guideline that schools use to indicate that they do not discriminate against women students in their athletic programs.

Called proportionality, the guideline says that schools are in compliance with Title IX if they have the same ratio of female athletes as female students. In other words, if a college is 75 percent female, its athletes in the college’s programs should be about 75 percent female.

The law permits colleges two other ways to indicate they do not discriminate: They must demonstrate a history of offering women full participation in sports programs or accommodating fully the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex.

Since schools cannot change their history and since the "accommodating" standard is ambiguous, schools have come to rely on the "proportionality" standard.

However, some college coaches and athletes believe that standard is unfair and hurts male athletes.

Leo Kocher, head wrestling coach at the University of Chicago and board president of the National Coalition for Athletics Equity, says he and the other coaches lobbied Congress to "try and raise awareness that a well-intentioned law is being interpreted and regulated badly. Everyone is for equal educational opportunities. Every coach out there is for that."

But what they aren’t for, he says, is schools’ eliminating men’s teams or putting a cap on the number of athletes on men’s teams in order to meet gender-equity statute compliance and avoid sex discrimination suits.

Kocher said in a telephone interview that the current interpretation of Title IX "creates a huge incentive for schools to simply eliminate male sports opportunities," a situation he calls "unfair to men."

The lobbying is the most recent development in a long-running battle to change the Title IX rules. Brown University, Illinois State University and California State University at Bakersfield, Calif., have all been sued by male athletes who argued that their teams were cut because of Title IX equity rules. Several years ago, Brown’s case was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some college coaches have blamed Title IX for elimination during the past three years of the men’s swimming team at the University of California at Los Angeles, the football team at Boston University and men’s gymnastics and wrestling at Brigham Young University.

"We do sympathize with the men whose sports are being eliminated," said Arthur Bryant, executive director of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a public interest law firm that has represented students suing colleges for Title IX violations.

His organization has "routinely pushed for and obtained settlements that protect both men and women’s opportunities to play sports," Bryant said, adding, "That is entirely legal and appropriate under Title IX. The problem is that many schools don’t want to protect men’s positions. They want to eliminate men’s positions for budgetary reasons and scapegoat Title IX in the process."

The National College Athletic Association, the membership organization responsible for regulating college sports nationally, tracks sports participation and advises schools on statute compliance based on their enrollment, resources and other factors.

That’s why Jane Meyer, director of education services for the NCAA that supports Title IX as a federal mandate, says it’s not so easy to fault the law for the decline of male sports. "As soon as they see participation rates drop," she says, "people immediately want to blame it on Title IX. You can’t make that leap. We can’t make that assumption."

Mashadi Matabane is a New York-based journalist.