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EDUCATION | winter 2002

And Now They Tell Us Women Don’t Really Like Sports?

Ms. Winter 2002

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Ever since July 2001, when President Bush nominated Kansas City lawyer Gerald Reynolds to head the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, women's sports advocates have been on guard—Reynolds had no background in education policy but had made a name for himself as an African American who opposed affirmative action.

Bush's recess appointment of Reynolds in March 2002, bypassing Senate confirmation, signaled serious intent to weaken Title IX enforcement, and in June, the Education Department created a Commission on Opportunity in Athletics to review Title IX and report on possible "reforms."

Here's how to read between the lines of the commission's report, due in late January.

In my first year at Stanford, my basketball teammates and I staged sit-ins in the athletic director's office. It was 1974. We were protesting our segregation in the "women's gym"—so claustrophobic that our 20 fans sat on a single bench between sideline and wall. Our coach was an unpaid graduate student. Our "uniforms" were red shorts and white T-shirts, over which we tied red "pinnies." I came to think of us as the pinney generation.

We'd drop by the athletic director's office unannounced, insist on meeting with him, and then remind him that Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded educational institutions, had passed two years earlier. It was his job to implement it, we informed him.

We were angry. We were persistent. We were, I'm sure, a pain in the neck.

We were also successful, at least at Stanford. In my junior year, we moved into "the big gym" (7,400-seat Maples Pavilion) and received paid coaches, uniforms, and a trainer. The year after I graduated, all 12 players were on scholarship. In 1990 and 1992, Stanford won national women’s basketball titles. And for the past eight years Stanford has won the Sears Cup, awarded to the nation’s best college for women’s and men’s sports.

"Are you surprised," people often ask me, at how far women's sports have come?" They’re thinking of proud, ponytailed soccer players with a spring in their step; of Venus and Serena Williams, whose bulging shoulder muscles dwarf Martina Navratilova’s; of the wildly popular WNBA ("Style. Grace. In Your Face."). They’re recalling the summer of 1999, when everyone watched Brandi Chastain whip off her shirt in celebration of winning the Women’s World Cup.

Actually, since I naively expected that by now women would enjoy an equal share of every "big gym' and every athletic budget, the surprise has been the persistence of inequities. True, female sports participation has increased tremendously since the seventies but look at these numbers:

  • High school boys still receive 1.1 million more opportunities than girls to participate in school-sponsored sports, even though girls' participation at the high school level has increased from less than 300,000 to almost 3 million.
  • In college, male athletes still receive 58,000 more opportunities to play than women do. And the men receive $133 million more in athletic scholarship assistance.
  • Coaches lack parity, too. In 2000-01, the average annual base salary for a women's coach was $86,119; men’s coaches earned $115,586. That's a salary gap of nearly $30,000, or about 35 percent.

What has slowed progress? Athletics directors have dragged their feet about implementing Title IX, often not complying with the law until threatened with legal action. The Office of Civil Rights, which has the power to withhold federal funds from noncompliant institutions, has never done so. In 1984, the Supreme Court weakened Title IX with a narrow interpretation. Though the law was restored to its full strength with the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988 (over Ronald Reagan's veto), the opposition continues.

It's more subtle than it used to be. Opponents no longer express worry about damage to women's delicate internal organs, as they did in the late 1800s, nor claim that women lack the endurance to sprint full court, as they did in the 1950s, nor fret that sports make women unfeminine, unattractive, or gay, as they did as recently as the 1990s.

Political cartoon - football programs take funding, blame cuts on Title IX.

The twenty-first century argument goes like this: Title IX has "gone too far." It must be reformed because women's equality is hurting men.

It was Laurie Priest, the athletic director at Mount Holyoke, who pointed out to me that when girls or women are given equal opportunities. boys and men often feel discriminated against. They're so used to enjoying privilege, preference, and priority- access to that big gym, they sometimes feel that 50-50 is unfair.

In the case of Title IX, many men believe they have tangible "proof" that female equality makes men suffer: some athletic departments have reached parity not by adding opportunities for female athletes, but by subtracting opportunities for male athletes. Players and coaches whose programs have been cut are crying foul.

So the federal government is "reviewing" Title IX.

Last June, U.S. Secretary of Education Roderick Paige announced the creation of the Commission on Opportunity in Athletics. When he testified before the Senate that month, Paige seemed enthusiastic about Title IX, calling it “landmark legislation" and "one of our most important civil rights laws."

He gave the law credit for an 847 percent increase in girls' high school sports opportunities since 1971. Paige also praised increases in the number of women in medicine, dentistry, and law. (Title IX applies to all aspects of education, including admissions, recruitment, course offerings, counseling, financial assistance, student health, insurance benefits, housing, marital and parental student status, harassment, educational programs and activities, employment, and physical education and athletics.) The administration, Paige promised, is "working to build on these successes."

The commission's stated purpose is "to study Title IX and recommend how and if it should be revised." Co-chaired by Stanford athletic director Ted Leland and former WNBA star Cynthia Cooper, the commission includes Julie Foudy, Women’s Sports Foundation president and captain of the U.S. National Women's Soccer Team; Donna de Varona, Olympic gold medalist and chair of the United States Olympic Government Relations Committee; and athletic directors, commissioners, professors, coaches, university presidents, and executives with a range of views on and familiarity with Title IX. Hearings were set up in six cities across the country. National Women's Law Center co-president Marcia Greenberger, testifying at the first hearing, which was held in Atlanta in August, made a strong case for vigorous enforcement of current Tide IX policies. The commission report is due to be released at the end of January.

Having lived through three decades of resistance to Title IX, women's sports advocates are wary. The commission represents "an under-the-radar assault by the Bush administration," says Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, which represents 160 organizations with a collective membership of seven million. “A frontal attack would alienate too much of the electorate. Suburban soccer moms and dads are for Tide IX, and they carry a lot of weight.”

"The very fact that they must praise it before they kill it is a testament to the popularity of women's sports," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "They can't oppose it on academic grounds, either—there are too many female doctors and lawyers. They can't win in the courts. They've tried that and lost. So their only chance is to change the regulations."

And that's the new wrinkle. In the past, athletic directors tried unsuccessfully to protect male entitlement by defending their schools against legal challenges brought under Title IX. The new tactic is to go after the Education Department itself for its guidelines for complying with the law.

The three current objections are:

  1. In order to comply with the law, schools are eliminating men’s sports, thus discriminating against boys and men.

  2. The enforcement regulations estab1ish a quota system.

  3. Women don’t really want to play sports as much as men do anyway.

According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA), 350 Wrestling programs have been cut since the passage of Title IX. Last January, the NWCA, joined by the College Sports Council and others, filed a lawsuit, charging that the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights has enforced Tide IX in a way that constitutes discrimination against men in low-profile sports. The Education Department has moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the court does not have jurisdiction to consider the case; nonetheless, it is preparing a review of its Title IX guidelines.

Aware of the wrestling cuts, House Speaker Dennis J. Hastert, a Republican and former high school wrestling coach who has publicly bemoaned the 11 “unintended consequence” of Title IX (the elimination of men's programs), had called for a General Accounting Office investigation. The GAO report, issued in March 2001, showed that in the 1998-'99 season, 162,783 women and 231,866 men were playing college sports. While some men's programs had been cut, others were being added, resulting in a net gain of 36 men's teams between 1982 and 1999, not a loss. Overall, male sports participation is increasing, not decreasing.

Also, in the 20-year span beginning in 1981, for every two sports opportunities added for women, 1.5 were added for men (82,000 were added for women; 52,735 for men). There were 156,131 men playing college sports in 1981, about the same as the number of female athletes today. So if men's sports opportunities had been held steady while bringing women up to speed, universities would not now be in the position of robbing Peter to play Paula, so to speak.

Schools have to make tough financial choices. In the 1970s, most college enrollment was 65 percent male. Today women students are in the majority, at about 54 percent. When colleges aren't able to raise additional revenue to fund the new women's programs that they need either to balance growth in men’s sports or to satisfy increased demand from women students, then they are forced to borrow from other line items in the budget.

The obvious fat to trim would be football—especially in big schools at Division 1-A level, with 85 football scholarships and vast coaching staffs with salaries that can exceed those of university presidents. (To put that number in context, National Football League teams carry only 53 active players) Eighty-three percent of athletic directors are men, and many of them are former football coaches. So to save the sacred bull of football, athletic directors look for other sources of money—and sometimes do cut wrestling to pay for field hockey.

Does Title IX constitute a quota? All eight federal courts that ruled on Title IX in the past 20 years have agreed: No. Nancy Hogshead, a 1984 Olympic swimming champion, assistant law professor, and founder and chair of the Florida Coastal School of Law Legal Advocacy Center for Women in Sports, explains that the guidelines for interpreting Title IX "give schools broad flexibility to choose between three wholly independent ways to show that they provide nondiscriminatory sports participation opportunities.

"Schools can either show that the athletic department's gender mix matches its general student body population, or that the institution has a history and continuing practice of expansion for women’s athletics, or that it is meeting the interests and abilities of the female athletes on campus,

Hogshead says. She emphasizes: "There's simply no quota involved."

It is that third part of what's known as the "three-part test"—the "interests and abilities" phrase—that seems to render Title IX most vulnerable. When all else fails, Title IX opponents claim that women don't really care much about sports anyway. In several lawsuits, schools have tried unsuccessfully to contend that the athletic “interests and abilities" of their female students are already being met—with proportionally fewer opportunities than male students are receiving.

The new commission may be pursuing this same line of reasoning. The Education Department's Web site offers an informational Q&A that includes this apparently frequently asked question: "Isn’t this commission just a way for the Administration to roll back the rights of female athletes because a few men are complaining that their programs have been cut?"

The answer they post on the site hints at a possible outcome: "No. For at least a decade, schools have requested additional guidance on how to assess the interest and abilities of their students. The Commission may choose to identify, among other things, methods that can be used to assess the interest and abilities of students. The Department seeks an approach that allows schools to structure their athletics programs to meet the needs and goals of the school and its students, in a nondiscriminatory manner consistent with the requirements of Title IX."

These "methods used to assess the interests and abilities of students" would probably consist of a survey instrument "that would take us back to the dark ages," according to Donna Lopiano, a Hall of Fame softball player and executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation. "It's like saying we should survey how interested women are in math—then limit their opportunities according to the survey. It's just crazy," Lopiano says. "Besides, there are less than 400,000 participation slots in college altogether. How can they possibly meet the interests and abilities of the six million high school girls and boys who might want to play college sports? To claim that they’re already doing so is ludicrous."

"Women aren't very athletic" is an antique argument, frayed from centuries of use, so I was surprised to hear Jessica Gavora make it. She's a former high school basketball player who says she learned through basketball how to work hard, how to handle success and failure, how to be a team player, and how to cherish physical fitness. I would not have been happy in a world that forced me to be a dancer or a cheerleader when I really wanted to play basketball," she acknowledges.

Yet in her recent book, Tilting the Playing Fields: Schools, Sports, Sex, and Title IX, Gavora calls Title IX a quota and claims it discriminates against boys and men. A senior policy advisor for the U.S. Department of justice and also Attorney General John Ashcrofts chief speechwriter, Gavora cites Brown University's research to make her case. While spending millions of dollars unsuccessfully defending itself against a suit brought by its female students, Brown presented surveys showing that the ratio of female to male varsity athletes at Brown—40 to 60 percent matched the interest levels among female and male Brown students.

The judge who ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 1991 rejected the university’s claim that Brown’s female students care less about sports, also rejecting Brown's claims that Title IX constituted a quota and that implementing Title IX would require a drastic reduction of the men’s program. The Supreme Court let the lower court's decision stand.

"We need an end to the recent rhetoric that implies that equality for women results in the destruction of men’s sports and that female athletes aren’t as interested in playing sports as their male counterparts," says pioneering women’s sports activist and tennis champion Billie Jean King. "These are anachronistic and stereotypical views that are contrary to reality."

Why are we still arguing about this? Why is there no end in sight to a 30 year-long debate over whether women should have equal opportunities on America’s playing fields? Because sports are not just sports. Sports are a battle, men often say. Sports are not a battle. But they’re not just fun and games, either. The more women play sports, the healthier and stronger they become. Physical fitness improves self-esteem and mood, lowers anxiety and depression, reduces stress. Women who play sports are less likely to suffer from breast cancer, osteoporosis, heart failure. High school athletes have lower rates of drug use and pregnancy. They feel better about their bodies.

Sports radically transform women emotionally, as well. The more women play sports, the more they respect themselves, stand up for themselves, team up with other women, and perhaps also refuse to tolerate abuse, whether that's sexual harassment at work or battering at home. The more women gain physical and emotional strength, the less feasible it is for men to treat women as inferior.

And maybe it's this—the growing strength, confidence, and teamwork among women, and the shifting balance of power between women and men—that makes Title IX an emotional issue, and upsets some people even more than the loss of a few wrestling programs. When I was on tour for my book, The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football, I kept hearing the word "different." During arguments about female power, potential, and purpose, after I "won” with statistics, facts, and reason, my opponents would resort to, "But men and women are different!"

Having heard this literally hundreds of times, in innumerable variations involving brains, muscles, height, weight, genitals, nurturance, combativeness, and other real and imagined physical and psychological differences, I have concluded that this is the emotional core of the opposition to Title IX, and to women's growing physical and political strength.

Title IX opponents want men and women to be fundamentally, essentially different from each other. They want men to be stronger. To be more privileged. To be on top.

Feminism challenges that assumption—saying, in effect: sure there are a few differences, but we can all be doctors, nurses, pilots, presidents, soccer players, synchronized swimmers, and soldiers, with the full range of emotions and behaviors to choose from. We need not restrict ourselves to gender-stereotyped games.

I think this perspective scares some people. What if women didn’t have to dress, talk, work, parent, and play sports "like women"? What if they could behave any way they pleased? What if men could?

In January, the commission will issue its report on the investigations into Title IX to Secretary Paige, who "will review the recommendations of the commission very carefully before making any decisions on how to proceed," according to the Education Department's Web site ( True, at least one man on the commission is a former wrestler, yet with women's sports advocates Donna de Varona and Julie Foudy there also, it's impossible to conceive of a unanimous proposal that would hurt women’s sports. But the commission is only making recommendations, not decisions.

Could the Bush administration rewrite the regulations based on an assertion that women don’t really care about sports as much as men do? Sure they could.

What's the worst that could happen? "Everything that we've worked for could be over," says Hogshead, the swimmer and lawyer. "They could tell schools that it's O.K. to give women fewer opportunities because they’re less interested in sports."

They could send us back to the “women's gym."