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Title IX—35 Years Later

July 25, 2007

When, 35 years ago this past June, Richard Nixon signed into law the Educational Amendments of 1972, no one paid much attention to a short section on gender equity that has become popularly known as Title IX. Controversy swirled around funding issues and a provision in the bill that delayed implementation of court-ordered busing for desegregation. But who could complain in 1972 during the blossoming of the contemporary wave of the women’s movement about a law that removed quotas preventing women from studying law and medicine?  As the Department of Education set about creating rules for enforcement, however, it became apparent that athletic activities would be affected.  High schools and universities across the country would need to create opportunities for women in the locker room as well as the classroom.  Some schools—mostly the large football-centric universities—balked loudly. So began two decades of starts and stops before the Clinton Administration finally spent time and resources on Title IX enforcement. No one can debate the huge impact of Title IX. It is arguably the most important legislation for women in the 20th century after the right to vote, and most Americans approve of it. A June 2007 survey by the Mellman Group shows that support for Title IX is bi-partisan (82% of all voters) and widespread among both women (86%) and men (77%).  In commemoration of this summer's anniversary, two leading advocates for Title IX, the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) and the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), and as well as the Government Accountability Office (GAO), have released reports analyzing different aspects of the law’s effect in light of a miseducation campaign created by a vocal anti-Title IX minority. The WSF report, Who's Playing College Sports? Trends in Participation, tracks the growth of opportunity as the number of women collegiate athletes increased more than five fold, from 32,000 in 1971-72 to 171,000 in 2005-06. Yet women remain underrepresented in comparison to enrollment, making up almost 56% of college students but only 42% of athletes.  Some think that portion is too generous.  One consistent complaint has been that the increase in opportunities for women has caused a decrease in opportunities for men.  The GAO refutes that argument in its report showing that the participation of both women and men in collegiate athletics has increased. In fact, discrimination against women and girls in sports is still widespread.  Jocelyn Samuels, NWLC vice president for education and employment, says its report, Barriers to Fair Play, demonstrates that girls and women face “pervasive inequities in athletics at every educational level” and that the Office for Civil Rights—the Department of Education agency charged with Title IX enforcement—has “fallen short.” NWLC analyzed complaints that have been filed, such as girls lacking access to locker rooms or barred from training facilities with the excuse that “girls don’t train as hard as boys.” Even after 35 years, the Title IX controversy shows little sign of abating. The Bush Administration, egged on by former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, is no friend of the law. The wrestling community has become very vocal in blaming Title IX for cutbacks in teams, and Hastert, a former wrestling coach, is a leading opponent.  Donna Lopiano, president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, notes: “There is no question in my mind that the multiple efforts to undermine the law . . . all stem from a Bush/Hastert agreement to get relief for Hastert’s favorite sport.” Lopiano refers to a 2002-2003 Commission on Opportunity in Athletics stacked to placate the anti-Title IX allies, and the March 2005 Department of Education issuance of a so-called clarification that created a huge Title IX loophole.  The good news is that Hastert is stuck back in the minority, and Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House, is a strong proponent, who marked the anniversary of Title IX with a statement of support. The anti's tactic has been an attempt to show that women are just less interested in sports than men and that resources are wasted trying to bring schools into compliance. The 2005 ‘clarification’ allows universities to demonstrate compliance without exerting much effort by submitting the results of email surveys to women students to gauge their interest in playing sports.  But these types of surveys are notoriously unreliable, since recipients find them too easy to ignore. The language of Title IX is straightforward:  “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Yet the wording is the only simple aspect of the issue.  As women and girls go on demanding an equal portion of athletic opportunities and budgets, the push back will continue.  Aaron Sorkin crystallized the sentiments of the battle in this scene from his 1995 film, The American President: GREEN BLAZERED MAN (GILL) Mr. President, militant women are out to destroy college football in this country. SHEPHERD Is that a fact? GREEN BLAZERED MAN Have you been following this situation down in Atlanta? These women want parity for girls’ softball, field hockey, volleyball . . . SHEPHERD If I’m not mistaken, Gill, I think the courts ruled on Title IX about 20 years ago. GREEN BLAZERED MAN Yes sir, but now I’m saying these women want that law enforced. SHEPHERD Well, it’s a world gone mad, Gill. For more on campaigning to protect Title IX, go to this website.