Women as athletes

February 03, 2003

WOMEN OF a certain age can recall a time when most little girls didn't think of themselves as athletes.

The only sports-related activity they would have considered trying out for in high school was cheerleading, and success at that seemed to have as much to do with being pretty and popular as with athletic ability.

Those were the dark ages before Congress, almost by accident, mandated in 1972 that female high school and college students have the same opportunities to participate in sports as males. Aspirations of young women have changed mightily as a result.

Basketball, soccer, field hockey and dozens of other sports opened to them. The number of high school girls on the playing field increased tenfold, to nearly 3 million by last year. College teams such as University of Connecticut women's basketball electrify their communities with as much wattage or more than their male counterparts. Soccer star Mia Hamm became a national celebrity and role model.

The Bush administration appears poised to adopt regulations that would turn back the clock. As the father of two daughters and an athlete himself, the president should call a penalty on the play.

College officials have been complaining for years that expanding athletic opportunities for women has come at the expense of male students.

They say they don't have the money to finance enough team sports for women to roughly match the number of slots on teams available to men. They also contend female students are not as interested in coming out for such sports as men, making it doubly hard for athletic programs to be equal.

Wrestlers claim they've had to pay the price, losing one-third of college teams - with berths for 2,000 wrestlers - in order to shrink the ranks of male athletes to match the level of female sports participation.

But there's plenty of evidence to suggest the real competition to wrestling is coming from powerhouse men's sports, notably football, that gobble up budgets and scholarships and field huge team rosters.

Such elite sports also delight the alumni, raise the prestige of schools and attract top students and financial contributions. It's politically easier to drop wrestling or men's tennis and blame Title IX than to reduce a football roster or a basketball coach's six-figure salary.

An advisory panel appointed by the Bush administration to examine the problem has recommended an easing of the standards most commonly used to determine whether colleges are meeting the mandate for equal opportunity.

That seems like the setup for Mr. Bush to act on the opposition he registered during his election campaign to "a system of quotas or strict proportionality that pits one group against another."

Yet reversing field on three decades of encouragement for women to stretch their skills to the limit athletically as well as academically is not the solution to what is, essentially, a competition among men.

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