Jackie Woods

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s rights advocates are planning a full-scale attack on expected attempts by a presidential commission to weaken Title IX, the 30-year-old civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against girls and women in education and school sports.

A coalition of women’s rights advocates met late last year in Washington to plan protests when the panel meets in the next few weeks to vote on proposals that they say would roll backthe clock on a law that has revolutionized women’s sports. The coalition has already held a telephone news conference to assail the panel’s proposed modifications to the existing law and is planning a larger news conference on Jan. 23. They also are planning activities to coincide with the 17th annual National Women and Girls in Sports Day, which falls on Feb. 5.

The commission is expected to release its final proposal in mid- to late-February. Many college and university athletic directors and others contend that athletic departments at schools around the country have seen their budgets stretched too thin in an attempt to create equal opportunity even when there isn’t always equal demand for sporting opportunities. As a result, they say, colleges have been forced to cut hundreds of men’s teams, especially lower-profile ones like wrestling and gymnastics.

Proponents of Title IX are expecting that the commission will issue recommendations that will reflect changes sought by the law’s critics.

"This will have devastating consequences for the rights of women and girls across the nation, will conflict with basic requirements of Title IX, and will weaken the fundamental principles that underlie our nation’s civil rights laws," said Jacqueline Woods, executive director of the American Association of University Women.

"Instead of approving the radical and destructive proposals currently on the table, the commission should, as a whole, reaffirm that current Title IX policies are essential to enforcement of equal opportunity and must be maintained and more strongly enforced," Woods said.

Commission Says Criticisms are Speculative

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education, however, called the complaints purely "speculative" and "completely bogus" and insisted that the commission’s intent is to strengthen–not undermine–the enforcement of the existing civil rights law.

"They’ve done nothing but attack the administration and the commission from day one," said department spokeswoman Susan Aspey. "We think that what is on the table are reasonable findings and recommendations that come from disparate academic backgrounds. They’re talking about something that hasn’t even happened."

Education Secretary Rod Paige, a former football coach at Texas Southern University, convened the Commission on Athletic Opportunity last June to measure the effectiveness of the law.

Since then, the panel has held several meetings where members have discussed a number of revisions to a law that critics say constitutes reverse discrimination and diminishes opportunities for men.

At Issue Is Controversial Proportionality Test

The committee has discussed a number of changes to the existing law, the most controversial of which would change the principle of proportionality, the first of a three-part test used to measure whether a school meets Title IX requirements.

But some fear that weakening the proportionality test, which requires schools to match the percentage of female athletes to the percentage of their female students, would enable schools to significantly cut back on the number of programs offered to female athletes.

The two other tests are not under scrutiny. The second says a school must demonstrate that it has a history and continuing practice of expanding opportunities for women. The third requires schools to show they are fully and effectively meeting their female students’ interests and abilities, even if they do not provide equal sports opportunities.

Women’s rights advocates say there is no reason to change the proportionality test because Title IX does not require schools to set aside a mandatory number of slots for female athletes, nor does it require schools to cut men’s teams. Moreover, they note that a school must pass only one part of the test to comply with the law.

"The attacks on the three-part test are premised on the notion that women are inherently less interested in sports than men," argued Jocelyn Samuels, vice president and director of educational opportunities at the National Women’s Law Center. "This is the kind of stereotyping that we should never accept as a basis for government decision-making."

Panel’s Critics Take Issue with Its Existence

The commission has also considered a number of other controversial recommendations. These include enabling schools to distribute a survey to determine levels of interest among female students and adjust sports opportunities accordingly; a proposal to determine proportionality based on the number of slots on a given team rather than by the number of participants; and a proposal to eliminate requirements calling for disclosure of the number of opportunities available to girls and women.

Critics of the panel take issue with all of these possible changes to the law. But they also contest the panel’s very existence, contending that the Bush administration established it specifically in response to backers of men’s sports who assert that quotas have hurt men’s sports teams.

They also claim that the committee is unfairly stacked against women athletes because two-thirds of its members hail from schools’ Division I-A sports teams. Those schools tend to place greater emphasis and expend more resources on their all-male football teams than do second- and third-tier schools. The panel, critics say, invited twice as many Title IX critics than supporters to speak before the commissioners in their four public meetings.

"With lack of equal representation, biased questions, clear manipulation of the process, among other things, it is quite evident that the commission is being used as a vehicle to push forth a pre-determined agenda to weaken Title IX," said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a law professor and the former president of the Women’s Sports Foundation. "The system is being rigged to provide greater advantage to an already advantaged population. This is both wrong and un-American."

The Education Department’s Aspey disputed this claim as well, contending that the 15 committee members come from disparate backgrounds. "Reasonable people can debate," she said, "but they’re taking it to a new level when they start attacking the committee’s ethics. Every commissioner will tell you if they thought things were rigged they wouldn’t be serving. They’re attacking the integrity of the commissioners as well as the commission."

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.



For more information:

The Secretary’s Commission on Opportunity in Athletics:

The National Women’s Law Center:

Women’s Sports Foundation: