Women's Sports Could Take a Hit

Thanks to Title IX, millions more college and high school girls are on the field. But if attempts to weaken the law are successful, that could change

Since July, Martha Burk has been on a crusade to get women admitted as members of Augusta National, home of the storied Masters golf tournament. When Burk threatened to organize a boycott of Masters sponsors, William "Hootie" Johnson, the club's defiant chairman, responded by dropping all sponsorships for 2003. Burk, who is chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO), wants to continue the battle. But I have a suggestion: The NCWO, the umbrella organization for 160 women's groups with 7 million members, should use its momentum to deal with a more far-reaching challenge facing women in sports: the growing threat to Title IX.

Many people don't realize that Title IX is under siege. This 30-year-old law prohibits any school that receives federal funding to discriminate by gender, whether in the classroom or on the playing field. While it isn't at risk of being repealed, there is mounting pressure both in the courts and from the Bush Administration to water down the law.

It would be a great loss if that were to happen. Since Title IX passed, in 1972, the number of women in college-varsity sports has climbed from 33,000 to 163,000, and the number of high school girls playing sports jumped from 300,000 to nearly 3 million. Women's professional basketball and soccer leagues have been launched. The changes are also reflected in the business world: Of 401 senior women executives recently surveyed, 82% played organized sports, according to a MassMutual Financial Group study. "Title IX is doing what it is intended to do," says Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation.

Although a number of lawsuits challenging Title IX have failed, supporters are particularly concerned about the one filed in January by the National Wrestling Coaches Assn. and other sports groups. It claims the law discriminates against men because some men's athletic teams have been eliminated to achieve equity for women's sports. Specifically, critics argue that one of the law's compliance options--that the percentage of male and female athletes be equal to the percentage of men and women in the school's general population--is a discriminatory quota system. As a result, many schools say, they must drop funding for men's sports because they can't afford to add women's sports. The U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia may issue its ruling this month.

I feel the case has no merit. While it's true that some less-popular men's collegiate-sports programs have been cut, such as Bowling Green State University's track team, it's certainly not the fault of Title IX. Each school chooses how to allocate its sports resources: Fat football and basketball budgets can be trimmed so that funds can be more equitably distributed among other sports. According to a recent General Accounting Office study, 72% of colleges and universities that have added women's teams have done so without cutting men's teams. In addition, the overall numbers of men's teams and intercollegiate players have gone up, not down, since 1972.

Even if the lawsuit fails, the Bush Administration "has given many signals that [it doesn't] support the current policies and may recommend changes," says Jocelyn Samuels, vice-president of the National Women's Law Center, which is spearheading the legal defense of Title IX. In June, Secretary of Education Roderick Paige set up the Commission on Opportunities in Athletics (COA), which will study how the law is being enforced and report in January. One possible change may require girls to demonstrate their interest in sports--via survey, for instance--before they're given the resources to play.

While it already has a Title IX task force, Burk's organization can do more. The NCWO can direct a grassroots-education campaign about Title IX's endangerment. It can encourage parents and students to lobby athletic departments on budget decisions, and it can start a letter-writing effort to alert congressional representatives and the COA commissioners to the law's benefits. In Burk's media appearances, she can ask listeners to sign a petition supporting the status quo of Title IX on the National Women's Law Center Web site (nwlc.org). At Augusta National, the NCWO has shown it can play tough. Now, it should bring its influence to bear on an issue with much higher stakes.

By Toddi Gutner

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