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Technical Foul Against Title IX

Susan J. Douglas

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Every weekend, like millions around the country, I witness a revolution. I go to a sports facility, outdoors or in, and watch girls and young women flex their muscles, sweat and compete to win. On the sidelines, family and friends passionately cheer on the girls.

When I was in high school and college, this was unheard of: Girls sat on the sidelines while the boys got to play. And then in 1972, as a result of the women’s movement, came Title IX, the law that banned sex discrimination in schools in both athletics and academics. This legislation was signed into law by none other than Richard Nixon.

Here are just a few measures of the law’s impact: In 1971, fewer than 300,000 high school girls played interscholastic sports. Today, the number is somewhere between 2.4 and 2.8 million. Between 1972 and 1995, the number of girls playing high school basketball increased more than 300 percent. Those of us who had barely heard of a sport called soccer in the early 70s now see our daughters’ bedrooms (and the rest of the house) festooned with shin guards, cleats and posters of Mia Hamm. Since Title IX, the number of women participating in intercollegiate sports has risen fivefold.

But Title IX is not only about sports. Because the law forbade high schools from expelling girls who became pregnant, the drop-out rate for these girls began to decline significantly starting in the 80s. The number of women and girls taking math and science courses, attending college and getting advanced degrees has also soared since the passage of Title IX. Nonetheless, girls still have 30 percent fewer opportunities to play high school and college sports than boys.

So, wouldn’t this be an excellent time to claim that Title IX constitutes reverse discrimination” and to try to eliminate it, or at least weaken it considerably? Team Bush, never missing a chance to try to dismantle any program that advances equal opportunity (they are slavering to get rid of Head Start), has set its sights on Title IX. Deploying egalitarian, compassionate slogans like Leave No Child Behind” (which should be renamed Piss on the Little Bastards”), Team Bush trusts that their little mottos will hide the fact they are trying to wreck what they claim to be saving. 

Thus, Team Bush put together a panel to review Title IX with a name right out of 1984, the Commission on Opportunity in Athletics. The 15-member commission was headed by Stanford University Athletic Director Ted Leland and former WNBA star Cynthia Cooper and charged with submitting its report to Education Secretary Rod Paige.

The review was reportedly motivated by a suit filed against the Department of Education by the National Wrestling Coaches of America, which claims Title IX had led to the decimation of men’s wrestling at the college level. The wrestlers have not targeted NCAA football, a sport that can devour massive amounts of money for recruitment, stadiums, publicity and coaches. But why take on the guys in helmets when you can go after the girls?

Just for the record, between 1982 and 1999, the General Accounting Office reported that 311 men’s wrestling, tennis and gymnastics teams were indeed eliminated; 302 men’s soccer, baseball and basketball teams were added; and football, our most noble sport, had the largest increase in participants.

By late January and early February, portions of the commission’s report began to circulate in the press. Two of the commission members, Julie Foudy, captain of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, and Donna de Varona, a former Olympic swimmer, issued a minority report to the press. They charged that the hearings were set up so that opponents testifying against Title IX outnumbered proponents by 2-to-1.

They then took aim at several proposed changes in the law. One would allow schools to count ghost slots” in athletic programs, a number of positions on a team roster that schools never actually fill, but which could be cited to artificially inflate the percentage of athletic opportunities they give women. 

Another change would allow schools not to count walk-ons,” men they have not recruited through scholarships but who participate in sports anyway. Thus, they could undercount the number of men who actually play. These and other proposals, relying on such fuzzy math would make it look like more women and fewer men were participating in school sports.

Various women’s groups, including the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, the American Association of University Professors, the National Women’s Law Center and the Women’s Sports Foundation, used Foudy and de Varona’s public dissent to launch a counterattack. Actresses Geena Davis and Holly Hunter became spokeswomen for a Save Title IX” campaign. On February 26, when the commission’s report was released, Maine’s Olympia Snowe, along with five other senators, sent a letter to Bush denouncing efforts to undermine Title IX.

The next day (as of press time), the controversy over undermining Title IX had gotten so heated Paige announced the only recommendations he would consider were those that received unanimous support from the commission. For the time being, the proposals most potentially damaging to women have been tabled thanks to all those women and their righteous male allies.

Team Bush is totally out of step with the rest of the country on this issue. But that never stops these guys. What they can’t get through public venues they will try to enact behind closed doors. So keep your eyes peeled, your hockey sticks poised, your boxing gloves at hand and your cleats ready to do some serious marching. 

Bush never misses a chance to dismantle any program that advances equal opportunity.
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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