Don't blame the law that opened up sports to women for the demise of men's sports programs -- blame the good old boys who won't touch the biggest cash drain, football.
Normally when a law is surrounded by a storm of controversy, it’s because the legislation resulted in some disaster that no one wants to take responsibility for. Title IX is proving to be the exact opposite. It’s hard to think of a similar law passed within the last quarter century that has been more successful. In fact, it’s not hyperbole to say that Title IX has been spectacularly successful, but you wouldn’t know it from the acrimonious debates that have been eating up our sports pages for the past few weeks.
Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funds, was signed into law — let’s give the devil his due — by Richard Nixon in 1972. Twenty-one years ago there were, according to the General Accounting Office, fewer than 295,000 girls participating in sports at a high school level. There are currently slightly more than 2.7 million. Can anyone argue that this has not radically changed America for the better?
The argument against Title IX, of course, is not that it has helped girls and women, but that it has unfairly done so at the expense of boys and men — and that getting rid of it won’t hurt women’s athletics. This is the argument advanced, for example, by Joe Drape, who wrote a piece in the New York Times last month called “A Good Law Whose Time Has Passed.” Drape argued that Title IX “is no longer necessary and should be abolished.” As he puts it, “You have administrators creating so-called emerging sports like women’s bowling to comply with federal law, or slashing men’s programs altogether … You have young people — forget their sex — being denied opportunities to participate in sports.” Drape believes, as apparently do many in the Bush administration’s advisory commission, that Title IX has already done all the good it’s going to do, that the gains made by women in sports cannot be rolled back, and that further insistence on compliance in any form (and the rules for compliance are flexible, so long as the school is making an effort) will only result in the loss of more men’s programs.
Drape is right, at least as regards the cutting of men’s programs. According to the General Accounting Office, America’s colleges have eliminated at least 80 tennis teams, 70 gymnastics teams, and 170 wrestling programs, all for lack of funds, while funds are poured into creating teams for women (such as women’s bowling and women’s equestrian teams) that there is no real call or demand for simply to be in compliance with the law. In other words, Title IX is now being unfair to men.
As Drape says, “The athletic administrators play shell games with the numbers.” Indeed they do; I’m sure the average high school or college athletic director could teach Major League Baseball and the motion picture industry some lessons in creative bookkeeping. But the biggest elephant of all, the one that everyone involved has kept hidden throughout all of the debate, is football. Everyone knows that football, at the high school or college level, is by far school sports’ biggest revenue producer. Everyone also knows that football and the enormously bloated structure that goes along with it — extra coaches, state-of-the-art facilities, scholarships, expensive recruiting trips, etc. — is also its biggest money drain.
Murray Sperber, author of “Beer and Circuses and Other Studies of College Sports,” estimates that perhaps 90 percent of America’s college athletic departments lose money, inevitably because of football. The percentage of male students who play football is actually very small, especially in comparison to the money spent on the sport. But everyone knows that football is untouchable. No one wants to take on the combination of athletic administrators and alumni that keeps the football power structure in place. So when the athletic budget has to be trimmed, and you can’t take it from women’s sports and you can’t take it from football, it’s men’s tennis, gymnastics, swimming and wrestling that are going to take a hit.
The system is unfair, very unfair, but who is ultimately to blame? In a lawsuit filed by several organizations, most notably the National Wrestling Coaches Association, the courts are being asked to replace the systems of compliance with what Eric Pearson, chairman of the College Sports Council, called “something more flexible.” Now, the system of compliance is more flexible than a tax plan for a billionaire. You can comply in one of three ways: proportionality, in which the number of women in athletics matches their share of student enrollment; showing a “history of expanding opportunities in sports for women”; and providing facilities for women in sports “fully and effectively.”
The one governing principle in all three is that the amount of money spent has to be the same or close to the same for both men’s and women’s sports. I can understand the anger and frustration of the coaches of men’s swimming and wrestling teams that have to cut back or have even lost their jobs because a committee within the university has decided that their method of compliance will be to create a women’s equestrian team. But they’re lining up against the wrong foe. Their enemy isn’t the women’s sports lobby for Title IX; it’s the hundreds of cash-gobbling football programs that provide athletic opportunities for relatively few students at any university.
The argument has and will continue to be made that football teams serve universities in more ways than can be measured by simply counting the number of warm bodies in uniforms. Having grown up in a college football tradition, I can testify to the truth of that. However, no one is asking the university to cut college football. What should be asked — no, what should be demanded — by every university in the country is that the football team stand in line to get its proper share of funds after the university has done what it’s supposed to do: namely, see to the proper athletic needs of all its men and women. Any argument to the contrary is double-talk. If every university in the country wants more money for men’s wrestling, swimming or any other team, let them all agree to cut 20 of the 85 scholarships from the football team.
Yes, male college students are being victimized. But don’t look to women’s athletics. Look to the real culprit: football and the male hierarchy that dominate America’s university athletic departments.
Allen Barra's next book is "Mickey and Willie -- The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age," from Crown. More Allen Barra.
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