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News Ball of confusion 

Title IX advocates brace for a new round of threats to the gender-equality law

Long-time supporters of Title IX face a dilemma these days. They know they have cause for concern, but they're not sure whether to worry more about the education department or the imminent ascension of John Roberts to the Supreme Court.


Title IX, part of an education bill enacted into law in 1972, emerged on the crest of the women's liberation movement and was designed to combat systemic gender discrimination in education. The precise wording of Title IX barred gender-based exclusion from any educational program receiving federal financial assistance, but from the beginning, most attention has focused on the way it has impacted athletics.

At the time of Title IX's passage, only 32,000 women participated in collegiate sports in this country. Today, that number is 150,000. More than nine times as many high-school girls compete in sports now compared to 1972. By providing more scholarships and athletic opportunities for young women, Title IX has also contributed to the development of women's professional basketball and soccer leagues. For female athletes who struggled to find opportunities in the pre-Title IX days, the law has been something of a godsend.

"I played basketball in high school, that's how I tore up my knee," says Corinne Sabo, a pre-Title IX graduate of Schertz-Cibolo High School who works in UTSA's accounts-payable division. "It lets me know, especially when it's cold, that we really needed better facilities back then.

"We also had tennis and a small track team and they moved the volleyball season to match with the basketball season, and because we only had one woman coaching everything, we had to drop a sport, so we dropped volleyball."

Sabo is only one of many Title IX advocates alarmed by developments over the last five months. While Roberts' appointment to the Supreme Court could tip the precarious judicial balance againt Title IX, most followers of the issue concede that his record is too murky to predict with any certainty how he would approach gender discrimination. A more immediate threat came from a March letter quietly released by the Education Department that seems to alter the nature of Title IX compliance.

Since its inception, Title IX compliance has been measured by three standards: Prong 1 requires that athletic opportunities for women be based on their proportion of the student body (for instance, if 50 percent of the students at a school are women, roughly 50 percent of the athletic opportunities should be targeted toward women); Prong 2 takes into account whether the school has made a good-faith historic effort to expand opportunities for women; Prong 3 considers whether the school is fully accommodating the interests of its female students. The Education Department's self-described policy "clarification" took aim at Prong 3.

The letter stated that schools could meet the accommodation provision if they provided an e-mail survey to students to gauge their relative interest in sports. If response to the survey did not indicate substantial interest, schools who failed to meet the first two provisions of Title IX would not need to add women's programs to be considered in compliance. While this alone would be enough to raise the hackles of Title IX supporters, the letter also enabled schools to count students who fail to respond to the survey (always a high percentage on college campuses) as disinterested in athletics. The tone and low-key manner of the announcement caused critics to view it as a subversive attempt to undermine equal-protection provisions while claiming to uphold them.

"They did this without public notice, without an opportunity for public comment, very much under the table," says Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. "It creates a huge loophole, and the strange thing is that only a year-and-a-half ago, the `Bush` administration said not only would it not weaken Title IX, it would opt for stricter enforcement."

Beyond the logistical flaws inherent in e-mail surveys, the approach is illogical because it surveys current students, but as Lopiano points out, "you do not recruit from your existing student body, you recruit high-school students." Most athletic departments plan years in advance, based on where they project their programs to be in the future. How can a women's athletics program do that if interest is measure by the limited opportunities available to students already on campus?

To Lopiano, the very concept of a survey for the purposes of Title IX suggests a double standard. "With men, the school picks out the sport it wants to have and goes out and finds the player," she says.

Because Title IX forced cuts in football and men's basketball, the so-called "revenue-producing" sports, its passage quickly met with anger from conservative lawmakers in football-crazed states. Former Texas Senator John Tower devoted much of his energy in the 1970s to Title IX, alternately attempting to revoke it or to exclude football from the law's budgetary calculus.

At the time of Title IX's passage, only 32,000 women participated in collegiate sports in this country. Today, that number is 150,000.

In truth, the Title IX battle has often crossed gender lines by pitting small sports (male and female) against the big-ticket cash cows. For example, at Florida A&M University, rocketing costs for football induced the school's athletic departments to eliminate its men's and women's swimming and diving teams, as well as men's tennis and golf. Similarly, the University of Wisconsin axed its men's baseball program 15 years ago, a move widely blamed on Title IX, but more accurately attributed to the school's costly attempts to compete with the football powers of the Big Ten Conference.

"You have millions of kids participating in sports in high school, but only 400,000 participation opportunities for men and women in college," Lopiano says. "So neither gender's needs are being met. It's the have-nots versus the have-nots scrambling for too few dollars."

Lopiano says it's too early to determine the impact of the Education Department's new policy, because it took effect too late to affect the spring semester and the fall semester has only begun. UTSA, San Antonio's most significant player in college athletics, stands in a unique position for several reasons.

For one thing, the university's athletic department never had to adjust to Title IX because the school did not launch its athletics program until 1981, nine years after Title IX's passage. Also, Lynn Hickey, the university's athletic director, is the only college AD in the state to oversee both men's and women's sports. Hickey took the job in 1999 after a stellar career coaching women's basketball at Kansas State and Texas A&M. Her dedication to women's sports is reflected in the fact that UTSA is in the process of adding women's golf and women's soccer to its athletics department.

The Title IX debate sometimes skirts the oft-forgotten fact that major universities are meant to be educational institutions and not football factories. Sabo points out "some of these young women have the opportunity to go to college only because they're good athletes. They couldn't afford it before, they can't afford it now, but because they're good with the basketball, volleyball, or softball, they can get a college education.

"When people look at Title IX, the first thing they think of is athletics, but this is also about equity in the classroom: girls being allowed to do something more than be chief bottle washer in chemistry class."

By Gilbert Garcia

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