Equity & Diversity

Title IX Panel Deadlocks On Critical Change

By Michelle R. Davis — February 05, 2003 5 min read
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A Department of Education panel studying Title IX and athletics last week scaled back some of the most controversial proposed changes to the agency’s enforcement of the law, including one that critics said could have eliminated thousands of sports opportunities for high school girls as they entered college.

The panel, formed after advocates for men’s sports long contended that Title IX rules were effectively sabotaging men’s minor teams, did little that would directly change athletic programs in high schools. Instead, the 15-member Commission on Opportunities in Athletics focused its attention mostly on college and university athletics programs.

Some divisive suggestions remain in the report to be submitted by Feb. 28 to Secretary of Education Rod Paige. During a final and contentious two-day meeting here, the commission often reaffirmed the intent of the 31-year-old law, which prohibits discrimination based on gender at educational institutions that accept federal funds. But the commission also provided suggestions for dealing with what critics say are inequities and unintended consequences in enforcement and implementation.

“There is confusion out there,” said Graham Spanier, the president of Pennsylvania State University, adding that some recommendations should be aimed at clearing it up.

Commenting on some of the less controversial recommendations, those approved by consensus, Mr. Paige said in a statement Jan. 30 that those provisions would “strengthen” Title IX.

Women’s groups say that the law, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, has not been fully enforced, and that women and girls still lack equitable and sufficient athletic opportunities. But some men say the law has resulted in cuts to men’s athletic teams at the college level, particularly in swimming, gymnastics, and wrestling.

During the meeting here, which capped months of cross-country gatherings, the panel debated 24 proposed recommendations. The final gathering started off on a testy note when commission member Julie Foudy, a professional soccer player, said she felt the commission’s protocols had placed a “gag order” on dissenting opinions by stipulating that a dissenting report would not be submitted along with the final recommendations from the panel’s majority.

Ultimately, the group agreed to include dissenting opinions within the main report, but the strained discussion made it clear commissioners remained sharply divided. On the second day of the meeting, co-chairman Ted Leland, the director of athletics at Stanford University, appeared exasperated at being unable to move the process forward.

“We can’t get anything done,” Mr. Leland said.

The atmosphere away from the conference table was tense as well. On the first day of the meeting, protesters picketed outside the Hotel Washington, where the meeting was held, carrying signs with such messages as “Don’t bench our daughters.”

Out of Proportion

Inside the meeting room, staunch advocates for Title IX sat near wrestlers who have sued the Department of Education over program cuts they attribute to unfair implementation of the law.

Commissioners’ discussions became particularly heated over ways to adapt or change one of the methods most often used to measure compliance with Title IX: proportionality.

Generally, that test requires that the percentage of female athletes on a school or college’s team be roughly equal to the percentage of females in the overall school population. Schools also may comply with Title IX by showing steady progress in expanding athletic opportunities for women or by demonstrating that they’re effectively meeting interest levels among women at their schools.

Commissioners deadlocked over one of the most disputed suggestions: whether to change the proportionality test to direct schools to aim for a 50-50 split between women and men on athletic teams, while allowing 2 or 3 percentage points on either side as “wiggle room.”

But commissioner Cary Groth, the athletic director at Northern Illinois University, expressed her worry that if such flexibility were provided, “we all know that minimums become maximums.”

Commissioner Deborah Yow, the athletic director at the University of Maryland, who sponsored the measure, said she believes that working from a 50-50 split was the fairest way to proceed. “I’m not going to stay in my old paradigm and say, ‘If they can screw us, they will,’” Ms. Yow said.

The commissioners voted 7-7 on the plan, which means it will be included in the report to Mr. Paige, but not as a recommendation. Secretary Paige and the White House are under no obligation to adopt the panel’s suggestions.

Donna Lopiano, the executive director of the Washington-based Women’s Sports Foundation, said the result of the measure, were it to become department policy, would be the loss of thousands of spots for high school girls in college sports and millions of dollars less per year in athletic scholarships.

Ms. Lopiano said she was disturbed the measure was not defeated and would still be included in the report. She accused the panel of failing to analyze the impact of its suggestions and said the members’ efforts had been “a frantic ‘Let’s get out of this media spotlight.’ That’s irresponsible.”

The panel moved away from setting any type of percentage quota, pleasing Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, which has a pending lawsuit against the department. “Our lawsuit says enrollment is not an appropriate measure,” he said.

A Nod to K-12

A host of noncontroversial recommendations passed by consensus, including instructing the Education Department’s office for civil rights to strongly enforce existing standards and educate schools about the Title IX law. Other suggestions including ensuring that the “spirit” of the law is not undermined.

And, in the commission’s only direct nod to precollegiate sports, the board recommended that the department initiate programs to promote students’ interest in sports on a high school level.

“They were not very definitive on high school issues,” said Athena Yiamouyiannis, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based National Association for Girls and Women in Sport.

Yet there’s still much work to be done on that level, said Tori Allen, a sophomore pole vaulter at Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis. Indiana, she said at a press conference last week, is one of only two states without girls’ pole-vault competition.

Her only option is to join the boys’ team, which would give her little chance at medals, she said, and no opportunity to compete in separate track and field events against girls.

Her odds of landing an athletic scholarship are low, Ms. Allen said, because colleges and universities don’t know she exists.

“I will never get a shot at going to a state meet ... because the boys vault at the state level 12 inches higher than the women’s world record,” she said. Later, she added: “The recruiters will not know to look at the boys’ county results for a girl pole vaulter.”

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