The women's games

March 20, 2005

MARCH MADNESS is under way, and once again the University of Maryland basketball team is back at the Big Dance - the Terps' women, that is. Their male counterparts - national champs just three years ago - didn't make the NCAA tournament's 64-team field this year. But the women's team is back for the second year in a row, after a season in which it went 21-9 and packed more than 17,000 fans into College Park's Comcast Center for one of its games, a conference attendance record.

All this is a local reminder of the great distance that women's collegiate sports have traveled since the 1972 passage of Title IX, the federal legislation that prohibits educational programs receiving federal aid to discriminate based on sex. Colleges now average 8.32 teams for female athletes, up from just 2.5 before Title IX, according to the most definitive long-term study. About 165,000 women now play varsity college sports, up from just 16,000 in 1970. Financial support for female athletes - facilities, scholarships, coaching, training, travel - has increased dramatically.

But this is an incomplete revolution with its own pitfalls. As women's sports have gained prominence and backing, men are squeezing women out of coaching: Only 44.1 percent of women's college teams now have female coaches, down from more than 90 percent before 1972. Also, too many big-time women's college teams are running up the same sort of poor academic records as men's teams, according to the NCAA's latest findings. And not least, the battle for gender equality in sports continues - from youth leagues through the college level.

This year, for example, the Supreme Court is expected to rule in the case of an Alabama high school coach who was fired after complaining to administrators about the unequal facilities for female athletes at his school. The issue - whether the coach can privately sue over his firing under Title IX - could turn out to be costly for schools that try to silence advocates for women's sports. An unfavorable ruling would be a setback for Title IX enforcement; a favorable one would put needed new teeth into a federal mandate that launched a revolution in women's sports that is not yet finished.

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