Colleges won't reverse gains in women's sports

April 27, 2005|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Title IX, the 1972 federal law mandating equal opportunity for females in high school and college sports, has helped spur huge changes. But its supporters have trouble believing their eyes. Despite the enormous gains for female athletes, they act as though the gains could be erased overnight.

They are currently outraged by a new Bush administration guideline that offers colleges a new way to show they are not discriminating - by asking all female students if they are interested in participating in athletics. If the number who say yes isn't enough to justify adding teams, a school would not have to do so.

The reaction was swift and harsh. Donna Lopiano, head of the Women's Sports Foundation, called it "incredibly bad policy that will disenfranchise generations of female athletes." The National Women's Law Center said the change "threatens to reverse the enormous progress women and girls have made in sports since the enactment of Title IX."

Some of the criticism was aimed at the survey method, which was derided as a perfunctory e-mail survey that is sure to get few responses, thus "proving" a lack of interest. In fact, the U.S. Education Department stressed that schools would have to survey all female students, "administer the census in a manner that is designed to generate high response rates" and contact students who don't respond to give them another chance. Only then could nonresponses be taken to indicate a lack of interest.

It's not clear, though, that any method would do. Feminists resent the notion of matching athletic opportunities to interest. Ms. Lopiano complains that "girls who want to play would have to prove they are interested."

But why is it unfair for a school to put off creating a team until it finds out if anyone actually wants to play? The measure is merely an attempt to clarify the rules so that colleges know how to abide by the law.

Title IX allows schools to comply by meeting a simple quota - showing that if women make up 50 percent of the student body, they make up 50 percent of all the varsity athletes. That's the clearest and safest path. But the law lets schools deviate if they can show they are "fully and effectively accommodating the interests and abilities" of female students.

For a college to gauge whether it's accommodating the interests of women, it has to find out what those interests are. The Education Department has offered them a clear way to meet this standard without running afoul of the government. But opponents fear such a survey would show that college women do not have exactly the same preferences as men, which is anathema to those who think sex discrimination explains everything.

In high school, girls outnumber boys in nearly every extracurricular activity except sports. One type of interest may preclude another. There has been a vast increase in athletic participation by females since 1972, but it has yet to match that of males, even in arenas where discrimination can't explain the gap.

College intramural sports, which are open to all, attract far more males than females. At the University of California, Los Angeles, 69 percent of the intramural players are men. Women attending all-female schools are less likely to participate in intercollegiate athletics than men at comparable coeducational schools.

To get women and men to take part in anything close to equal numbers in varsity sports, schools have to do things such as create scholarships and do extensive recruiting to fill female crew teams, even though it's hardly a sport in great demand. At the same time, many limit rosters in men's baseball and other sports, even for nonscholarship "walk-on" players.

Feminist groups complain that though women are a majority of college students, they account for only 41 percent of varsity athletes, as though disparity proves discrimination. In fact, it may show only that colleges know better than outside critics what female students want.

After all, these institutions can ill afford to alienate a group that makes up their chief clientele: Nationally, 56 percent of all undergraduates are female. A school that shortchanges women in any way is a school that is inviting its own demise.

Feminists act as though we live in a world in which institutions of higher education are itching to relegate women to second-class status. But thanks in part to Title IX, that world is gone, and it's not coming back.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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