Student Well-Being

Diverse Title IX Panel Takes on Tough Task

By Michelle R. Davis — September 04, 2002 5 min read
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One by one they lined up to talk about how sports had changed their lives. With pride, young women spoke of being rescued from poverty by basketball. With tears in their eyes, men described teams being scrapped and scholarships lost. With admiration, fathers talked of watching their sons and daughters develop confidence and poise through sports.

At the first official meeting of the Department of Education’s Commission on Opportunity in Athletics, held here in Atlanta last week, the 15-member panel heard from wrestlers, rowers, gymnasts, coaches, policy experts, players, and parents—most intensely passionate about the effect that Title IX has had on their lives.

It’s an intensity that members of the commission share, though those strong opinions may clash.

The panel was formed in June to evaluate the law mandating equal opportunities for women and girls in athletics and education at institutions that receive federal aid. The commission will tackle a long list of concerns about how the law—known formally as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972—is playing out when it comes to sports, and make recommendations in a report due Jan. 31.

But they’ll have to deal not only with the legal and social ramifications of Title IX, but also the political ones that called for the commission to be formed in the first place.

“A commission tends to be Washington’s favorite answer to a thorny political question,” said Christine Stolba, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, based in Arlington, Va. “I doubt they’ll come out with a consensus document.”

No Rubber Stamp

Despite the political implications, many observers said the commission members chosen by Secretary of Education Rod Paige represent a cross section of views.

The commission includes a former women’s professional-basketball player, athletic directors, a professional soccer player, a former wrestling coach, members of the Women’s Sports Foundation, and a university president, among others.

“I’m encouraged by the many people on the committee who actually live in the trenches every day,” said Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, based in Lancaster, Pa. His organization sued the department in January, saying its 1996 interpretation of Title IX has forced colleges and universities to cut some men’s athletic teams.

The formation of the committee came on the heels of the 30th anniversary of the 1972 law, a milestone that passed amid rumors that the administration is unhappy with Title IX and is backing away from enforcement. (“Title IX: Too Far, or Not Far Enough?,” June 19, 2002.)

But Nancy Zirkin, the director of public policy and government relations for the Washington-based American Association of University Women, said she believes members of the administration are split on the issue. Forming the commission may be a way for Mr. Bush to assure his conservative base that he’s looking at the issue. But at the same time, administration officials chose commission members with a wide range of views.

“On the face of it, it looks fair,” she said. “If this administration was firmly against Title IX, they would have stacked the commission against it.”

Opening the conference last week, the first of four the panel will hold, Deputy Secretary of Education William D. Hansen stressed there were no plans to try to scrap the law. “There should be no question of our commitment to Title IX,” he said.

But commission members have a rocky road ahead of them, if the two-day conference here was any indication. The issues they face are complex and emotional. Nearly everyone who talks about the impact of Title IX has a personal experience to share.

Kisha Ford is a former Georgia Institute of Technology and Women’s National Basketball Association player. She told the panel that without athletics, she’s sure she would have followed her older brother to the streets of Baltimore, where he became addicted to drugs.

A basketball scholarship to college was her ticket out. “If I didn’t have college—and I wouldn’t have had college without Title IX—I would have followed the same path,” Ms. Ford said.

But there were male athletes in Atlanta, too, saying Title IX has led schools to cut men’s athletic teams—particularly wrestling, gymnastics, and swimming—to ensure equality for women.

Michigan State University senior Jason Lewis said he trained from childhood to be a gymnast and was thrilled to earn a place on the school’s team. That place disappeared in April 2000, when he was told the team had been dropped to make sure the school had an equal number of female and male athletes.

“It was heartbreaking,” Mr. Lewis told the commissioners. “I was 19 years old and called up my dad. I was crying like I was 5 years old and just got spanked.”

Three-Part Test

Some panelists and speakers pointed out that many schools remain out of compliance with Title IX and have yet to give women as many opportunities as men. Others found particular fault with the portion of Title IX that helps schools determine whether they’ve complied with the law.

To follow the law, a school can show that the proportion of women enrolled at the school is similar to the proportion of female athletes it has. Schools can also show they have expanded women’s sports in response to interest. Or they can show that the interests and abilities of female athletes have been fully accommodated by existing programs.

Though schools can comply with any one of the three parts, experts said last week that institutions are trapped into using proportionality as their only standard. It’s the only test considered impervious to legal challenges. To make sure the proportions add up, sometimes men’s teams or male athletes must be dropped.

But others said higher education institutions are making overall budgetary decisions that result in cuts to some men’s sports, then using Title IX as a scapegoat.

As for the commission members themselves, several said that despite the divergent opinions on the panel, so far the limited discussions that have taken place have been open-minded and respectful.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” said Julie Foudy, the captain of the U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team and a commission member, who believes it’s unfair to blame Title IX for cuts in men’s sports. “This commission was put together to gather ideas, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

But the panelists are keenly aware that politics will be woven into the process. Even before they arrived in Atlanta, most members had been barraged by e-mails, primarily from wrestlers.

“People have different slants on this issue, but I think we can override the politics,” said member Percy Bates, a professor of education at the University of Michigan.

But commission member Tom Griffith, the general counsel at Brigham Young University in Utah, said he doesn’t believe the members have to be unanimous in their thinking. “If we don’t reach consensus,” he said, “I don’t think it’s a failure.”

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