A lawsuit by a college wrestling coaches’ group aimed at restoring athletic opportunities for male students has been pinned to the mat by a federal appeals court.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on May 14 upheld an earlier dismissal of the suit claiming that the Department of Education’s regulations for enforcing Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 caused some colleges to scrap their wrestling teams.
The 2-1 ruling by a panel of the federal appeals court in Washington echoed a 2003 U.S. District Court decision that responsibility for the athletes’ grievances lay with the colleges, not the Education Department’s interpretations of Title IX. The law prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal money.
The loss of athletic opportunities for men in these instances comes from “the independent decisions of federally funded educational institutions that choose to eliminate or reduce the size of men’s wrestling teams in order to comply with Title IX,” says the majority opinion by the appellate panel. The majority also said a change in government policies would not rectify the situation; only the schools could do that.
Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, the Manheim, Pa.-based group that filed the suit, along with several others, said his organization planned to ask the full appeals court to rehear the case and, if turned down, would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We have no intention of stopping,” he said last week.
The association’s lawsuit challenged Education Department guidance from 1979 and 1996 on complying with Title IX, including a rule that allows colleges to demonstrate their compliance in athletic programs by providing opportunities for men and women in numbers proportionate to their enrollments. Institutions can cap or eliminate teams to get their proportions right.
Last year, a commission appointed by the Bush administration held hearings as part of a review of Title IX issues and heard from hundreds of male wrestlers, swimmers, gymnasts, and other athletes who blamed the elimination of their sports on the so-called proportionality test. Following the hearings and a controversial report from the commission, the Department of Education ultimately made no changes to the law. (“After Long Title IX Review, Agency Makes No Changes,” Aug. 6, 2003.)
In his dissent from the appellate ruling, U.S. Senior Circuit Judge Stephen F. Williams wrote that schools that eliminated men’s sports programs had done so as a direct result of the Education Department’s Title IX rules, so the plaintiffs had legal standing to sue the department and not just the colleges.
“The complaint clearly alleges that the department regulations and policies represented a substantial factor in educational institutions’ decisions on the number and composition of sports teams,” he wrote.
Neena Chaudhry, a senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, a Washington-based organization that advocates strong enforcement of Title IX, said she didn’t believe any appeal by the wrestling coaches’ association would be successful.
“The decision shows that Title IX is not to blame for the losses of some men’s teams,” she said. “The real task is to enforce the law because there’s still a lot of discrimination against women and girls.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2004 edition of Education Week as Wrestling Coaches Lose Appeal Over Ed. Dept.’s Title IX Rules