June 23, 2010

Why it’s time to get beyond Title IX

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: , — wendyp @ 6:58 am

There isn’t a young girl or grown woman in America who’s taken up playing basketball — or any other sport — and who hasn’t received a constant reminder of the hard-won privilege she enjoys to be able to play the game she loves.

The activists who fought the necessary battles to open up the courts, fields, pools and coaching and administrative ranks for females in sports have influenced a generation of women who know that they owe their opportunities largely to the passage of a federal education law 38 years ago today.

Title IX is properly credited with ushering in the explosion of participation in sports for females across the board, and most notably basketball, the so-called “flagship” women’s sport at the high school and college levels.

But there’s another side to its legacy that threatens to tarnish the positive effects and cloud the challenges facing a more globalized women’s athletics landscape. Ever since the mid-1990s, when Title IX activists began pushing for proportionality — something they deny, of course — the women’s sports movement has veered away from the noble intent of the law, and away from embracing any reasonable definition of fairness for young athletes of both genders.

I’m not alone in this assertion, and those of us who are critical of what has happened do not oppose Title IX, but rather the claims, tactics and objectives of its most dogmatic defenders. In my mind, these activists have badly damaged the embrace of women’s sports as much as any rank misogynist.

Best example of that: The Brown University saga illustrating the fanatical obsession with playing the “numbers game” that has become a life-and-death ritual for many Title IX activists.

This is absurd, of course, almost as much as Division I women’s basketball teams getting 15 full-ride scholarships under NCAA mandates, to just 12 for men, when few programs play even 10 players on a regular basis. This prevents some badly needed parity in women’s hoops, all for the mere sake of increasing the female participation head-count.

I got another eye-opener in this regard in 2003, at a federal Title IX commission hearing in Atlanta. By then, advocates for embattled men’s sports like wresting, gymnastics and swimming had mobilized, and lined up a bevy of speakers to emotionally describe how they had lost their teams — and their chance to play — because their schools had to play the numbers game. Women’s teams weren’t being added in some cases as much as the number of men were being reduced to avoid legal action.

Conversely, the speakers in favor of maintaining the Title IX status quo were equally dramatic. A hoops coach was nearly in tears talking about what the law meant to her as a former player, and to those she was coaching. Young girls too young to have heard the word “proportionality” before stepping into the auditorium were spouting similar sentiments, likely scripted, hardly convincing.

If sports make you stronger, I thought to myself, why are individuals on both sides reducing themselves to puddles?

Most recently, the Obama Administration earned its bona fides with the Title IX establishment by reversing a Bush-era policy that was rarely used and that few people outside a tiny cluster of activists, lawyers and athletics administrators even knew about. Yet media cheerleaders couldn’t contain their melodramatic glee.

Is this what Title IX has come to? Rigid postulating, staging photo-ops, browbeating critics, threatening and filing endless lawsuits and needlessly wasting time, energy and money haggling over numbers? Is this how petty Title IX activists — and to some degree their opponents — have become?

It’s time to scrap the three-part Title IX test for compliance — now 31 years old, dating back to the AIAW era, reflecting a very different campus environment for female students and athletes when I was in school — and start anew. The first thing to go should be the the noxious proportionality provision that is being used primarily as a bludgeon.

It’s also time for Title IX activists to make their peace with football, their convenient bête noire. Believe or not, their football antagonists have made some concessions over the years, such as reductions in scholarships. Some more cuts at the FBS level may be in order, and not just a loss in players. Do BCS schools really need all those assistants, and especially “quality control” coaches?

While football at the very top levels is going to get richer and more powerful with coming conference realignment, those wishing to take a hatchet to it need to be mindful that this is the funding source for most of the best women’s hoops teams in the land, and that also lose tons of money.

The NCAA needs to be more of an impartial entity on gender equity, instead of being part of the Title IX establishment. While the late NCAA president Myles Brand was indeed a champion of women’s athletics and should be commended for that, he also left athletics directors trying to balance Title IX and financial pressures to twist in the wind.

Brands’ successor, the newly appointed Mark Emmert, ought to do something like this: Call a gender equity summit inviting the Title IX advocacy and those wishing to reform the law, and demand that both sides bring to the table concrete, substantial recommendations for what they would give up in order to reach some kind of consensus. Along with input from athletics directors, coaches and athletes at member institutions, this could form the basis for taking to Washington an NCAA proposal to rework Title IX for the future.

Of course, all this would require learning the art of compromise, and the history of Title IX skirmishes indicates that nobody’s going to back down. What was I thinking? Smoking?

Yet the challenges facing women and sports now, and in the decades to come, will have very little to do with Title IX. The growth of women’s sports around the world — where Title IX does not apply — is increasing as greater legal and cultural freedoms for women are granted in countries that have long denied them. FIBA, the world basketball governing body, and FIFA, its soccer counterpart, are expanding youth world championships for girls, trying to encourage development of female sports in corners of the globe that have not been hospitable to that idea.

Here in America, ensuring the viability of women’s professional sports, and improving the grassroots development of young female athletes, should be of greater concern than whether State U should have started a women’s water polo team.

The futures of the WNBA, the LPGA and the Women’s Professional Soccer league are not guaranteed, and Title IX is powerless to save them. The ability of young girls to receive high-level training and competition before high school and college largely depends on a combination of volunteer parents and dedicated youth coaches in accelerated club programs that also fall outside the reach of Title IX.

Activists like to pay lip service to “Title IX babies” now in the pro basketball ranks, but they also have to go overseas to make some real money as the 13-year-old WNBA has been reduced to 12 teams and is struggling to create a presence in some of its existing markets.

The Title IX activists can’t be bothered with the cold realities of the business world that isn’t under any government mandate to even have a women’s pro hoops league.

At the same time, the Women’s Sports Foundation and similar organizations still expend far too many of their emotional energies and resources to sue the likes of Quinnipiac College — and get in a huff over whether cheerleading can be declared a sport.

This week, former WSF and Texas women’s athletics boss Donna Lopiano testified on behalf of the Quinnipiac plaintiffs. Naturally, she disdained the idea of cheerleading being counted as a varsity sport, although Maryland AD Deborah Yow — certainly no knuckle-dragger — has done exactly that to help with Title IX compliance at her school.

Moving beyond Title IX is obviously far outside the bounds of a coterie of women (and a few good men) who’ve become so enamored with political activism and pushing the levers of government bureaucracy and the federal judiciary that only the lawyers, to borrow a cliché, are getting enriched.

But moving beyond Title IX — or more specifically, the warped methods by which activists are demanding it be implemented — is absolutely necessary for women’s sports to grow and thrive.

Update: It seems like I’ve angered more than a few folks about what I wrote above, which is no surprise. Also not surprising is that they’ve chosen to repeat ideological talking points among themselves rather than respond directly here. Of course, there’s no way to comment on either of their blogs; commenting is disabled. They don’t want a dialogue with those who have a different point of view, accusing them instead of not being in possession of the facts.

The push for proportionality I referred to was not about the original regulatory implementation, as Erin Buzuvis at the Title IX blog contends, but by Bill Clinton’s civil rights officer in the Department of Education in 1996. Norma Cantù declared proportionality the only “safe harbor” for schools to comply with Title IX, which thrilled women’s sports activists. But athletics directors and university presidents rightly translated that to mean: Get the numbers right, or risk getting sued.

The compliance game changed irrevocably with Cantù’s clarification, and the Brown case unfolding around the same time. Title IX activists will never admit they don’t trust the other two tests, as they are written very nebulously, while proportionality is just the opposite. Those vast discrepancies alone are reason enough to revise the regulations.

Buzuvis finally states that anyone who cites the age of Title IX wants to repeal the law. That is patently false, she knows it, but she and her advocates carry on with such rhetoric. A hell of a lot of great things have happened for women in education and athletics in the past four decades, and it’s time that the law reflects where they are now, not in 1972. The activists are in a time warp, desperate to paint the plight of women in sports as a still-bleak one that requires their perpetual “mythbusting” efforts. As well as their perpetual indignance.

As for Helen at the Women’s Hoops Blog, well, bullet-spittin’ outrage is her stock-in-trade.