Cynthia Cooper

(WOMENSENEWS)–A commission will begin a series of public hearings Tuesday on how to reevaluate Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funds.

At the heart of the controversy is how schools can prove that they are offering adequate athletic opportunities to female students in order to conform with the law. Federal courts have said there is a three-prong test: The proportion of a school’s female athletes must equal the proportion of women enrolled; a school adds women’s teams; or its athletic programs fully meet the interest and abilities of women students.

However, since the last measure is difficult to assess and adding teams is expensive and time-consuming, the controversy has come to settle on the so-called proportionality test. The Secretary’s Commission on Opportunity in Athletics, appointed by the U.S. Department of Education, will address that test when it considers eight specific questions on the standards for assessing equal opportunities in athletics.

Panelists, including renowned women athletes, advocates and representatives of colleges and universities, will hold public meetings beginning Tuesday in Atlanta with parents, athletes, school officials, experts and public leaders. Future meetings will take place in Chicago, Colorado Springs, San Diego, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The commission will then submit a written report to the U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige by Jan. 31.

The Core Issue Is How to Measure Equitable Opportunity for Sports

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, some colleges and major universities have blamed the law for their decisions to cut men’s wrestling, swimming, outdoor track, tennis and even football teams. Despite these cuts, one study found that male college athletes outnumber women by about 50,000, even though more women are enrolled in colleges than men.

One question that has troubled women’s advocates is whether Title IX standards for assessing equal opportunity in athletics are working to promote opportunities for male and female students.

And, pointing to the belief of some that high budgets for 100-member football teams has caused the elimination of some male sports–not Title IX–analysts ask how revenue-producing and large-roster teams affect the provision of equal opportunity.

Also asked is: How should cheerleading and bowling factor into the analysis of equitable opportunities?

The commission will wrestle with these longstanding questions. It is co-chaired by Cynthia Cooper, a former star of the Women’s National Basketball Association, and Ted Leland, director of athletics at Stanford University. Paige tried to identify individuals with expertise and experience in all concerned fields–athletic, academic and legal, said Dan Langan, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.

Swimmer, Soccer Captain Among Women Commissioners

The commission includes other top female sport professionals, such as Donna De Varona, who twice won the Olympic gold medal in swimming, and Julie Foudy, captain of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and one of the most recognized players in women’s soccer. It is expected that they will support the current Title IX standards.

In all, eight of the 15 panel members are women. Nevertheless, women’s advocates are worried that the voices supporting the current standards could be drowned out by university representatives–including four of the women panel members. They claim that membership is dominated by representatives from the largest schools that are members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, who may not committed to supporting the current standards for compliance with Title IX.

"We’ve only had one meeting so far–and I haven’t heard anyone adamantly opposed to Title IX," said Percy Bates, professor of education at the University of Michigan and a member of the commission.

"But I suspect that the secretary did not create a panel where everyone has the same opinion–there will probably be conflicting views on how to enforce Title IX–some committed to protecting the law as it is, and others in favor of eliminating the proportionality component," he added. Title IX enforcement is the subject of bitter litigation in his home state.

Title IX Has Had Tremendous Impact

Title IX has had a tremendous impact on the life of women in this country. Thanks to this landmark law, the number of female college athletes is now five times the 1972 rate. In 2001, 150,916 women participated in intercollegiate competitions, according to the National Women’s Law Center. For many, including some members of the panel, the law has opened the door to great career opportunities.

At the same time, Title IX remains one of the most violated civil-rights laws in the country and too many schools still fail to give women equal opportunity in athletics, according to the National Women’s Law Center. A report by the center showed that while 53 percent of the students at large universities and colleges are women, these schools give their female athletes only 41 percent of the opportunities to play, 36 percent of their total operating budgets and 32 percent of recruiting dollars.

In June the center released the names of 30 colleges and universities in 24 states it said were failing to give female athletes their "fair share of athletic dollars" as required by the law. The center did not assess all institutions in the United States, but cited these as examples of how common violation of the law is.

Women’s Rights Advocates Worry about Hidden Agenda

Many women’s advocacy groups see a hidden agenda to weaken Title IX in favor of male athletes such as wrestlers, golfers and swimmers. They point to the statement in the commission’s charter that expressed concern that enforcement of Title IX might have caused the "needless" elimination of certain men’s teams.

Indeed, Title IX remains the subject of bitter litigation. Just last month, in the Michigan case, a federal judge found that the state high school athletic association violated Title IX’s policies by scheduling women’s sports in nontraditional seasons. That decision is likely to be appealed and the case has been the subject of intense interest throughout the state.

And in January, the National Wrestling Coaches Association and other groups representing male athletes filed suit against the federal government, claiming that the proportional requirement in Title IX discriminates against men by imposing quotas. Although the Department of Justice asked that the lawsuit be dismissed, it has raised an important public debate and the issue is expected to return to the Supreme Court.

The National Women’s Law Center argues that compliance with Title IX does not imply a cut in men’s teams, and that a school can comply by showing that it is "trying" to expand opportunities for female athletes by adding new teams.

"This commission is a step towards changes that could fail girls and women on the playing field," said Jocelyn Samuels, the women’s law center’s vice president and director of educational opportunities.

The Women’s Sports Foundation, which also supports that position, hopes that the voices of women’s advocates on the commission will be heard. De Varona, co-founder of the foundation, and soccer captain Foudy, the current president, will have major roles in defending female athlete’s interests, alongside other members.

"The foundation is committed to educating the commission, elected representatives and the general public about the current status of women’s sports," said Donna A. Lapiano, executive director of the foundation.

Bates from the University of Michigan says the commission’s role will not be to encourage the dismantling of Title IX, but to educate college officials about what the law requires.

Marieme Daff is a Women’s Enews summer intern.



For more information:

U.S. Department of Education–Secretary’s Commission on
Opportunity in Athletics:

Women’s Sports Foundation:

National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education: