Toward the end of Tuesday’s story in The New York Times detailing how some schools “fudge” female participation numbers to reach Title IX compliance, former Syracuse athletics director Jake Crouthamel uttered a sentence that has long reflected the sentiments of women’s sports advocates:
“Football is the elephant in the whole thing. That’s the monster.”
He was stating the frustrations that many of his peers have felt in trying to adhere to the law because of the numbers of athletes required for football, which has no female equivalent.
Here we go again.
We’re rehashing some of the pitched rhetoric that has marked Title IX battles for the better part of 40 years. If not for football, this line of thinking goes, perhaps we wouldn’t be seeing some of the startling realities that Times reporter Katie Thomas uncovered about the results of some dubious bean-counting that schools submit to the federal government:
– Male practice players in women’s basketball count as women. Of the 32 participants counted last season for recent NCAA champion Texas A & M, 14 were men.
– Fifteen of the 34 members listed on the Cornell women’s fencing team roster are men.
– More than half of the 71 women listed on the South Florida cross country roster in 2009 didn’t run a race in that year. Some said they didn’t know they were on the team.
– Some female athletes are “underqualified,” with little or no experience in the sport for which they are listed as participants.
– Tight roster limits have been placed on some men’s teams to prevent male participation numbers from “skewing” attempts at reacing gender balance.
And so on and so on.
Some of these practices are not new revelations, especially the last two.
And interestingly, they don’t appear to run counter to federal regulations or NCAA objectives. The NCAA, for example, has actively encouraged roster management (especially in football) as a tool for reaching Title IX compliance.
In the most stunning admission in the story, Thomas reports that deputy assistant education secretary David Bergeron thinks “men should be counted on women’s teams if they receive coaching and practice with women.”
What Thomas didn’t do was examine the premise of the first test of Title IX compliance, known as proportionality, which has had the de facto force of the law since the mid-1990s and which has had athletics directors scrambling ever since. It’s also been the biggest bone of contention by forces advocating on behalf of male athletes who’ve lost their teams when schools make cuts for gender equity purposes.
Neither did Thomas address the subject of interest, which women’s sports advocates loathe and which has become something of a third rail not to touch. The party line is that women are just as interested in men in participating in sports, but they’ve been unfairly held back. That might have been true in the past, but the examples shown in Thomas’ reporting illustrate a desperate attempt by colleges to play Title IX’s numbers game any way they can. If they had been able to find an ample supply of interested female athletes to fill roster sports, isn’t it fair to assume they would have done that? Especially with the constant threats of lawsuits hanging over their heads?
These are questions that beg for answers, but they were not asked here.
Instead, Thomas interviewed the usual suspects in stories like this: Women’s Sports Foundation mouthpiece Nancy Hogshead-Makar; Russlynn Ali, the current head of the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights in an administration friendly to the Title IX establishment; and an indignant university president, in this case Donna Shalala of Miami, Fla.
Hogshead-Makar called these practices a “fraud.” Shalala, a former Clinton cabinet member who ought to have bigger concerns with a new AD, football coach and men’s basketball coach, took the time to accuse schools of “end-running Title IX for a long time.”
Even the Times headline was loaded, suggesting that schools are “relying on deception.”
Except that they’re doing nothing that could land them in court, or run afoul of federal regulators. At least not yet.
Do these “roster management” techniques follow the spirit of Title IX?
But neither does the proportionality test, which was treated like a ghost in this story. Thomas later answered some reader mail online, but again passed on the opportunity to address either that or the interest topic, which was foremost on the minds of many commenters on her story.
Wednesday’s unsigned Times editorial was also predictable, accusing schools of playing “cynical games” but remarkably uncritical of the warped logic of proportionality that created the conditions for these actions. There’s an assumption here that women naturally will rush to fill the percentage of sports slots to match the undergraduate enrollment at their schools if only discrimination were ended. This assumption is not to be challenged.
I will suggest here that it is interest, and not football, that is the real elephant when it comes to Title IX compliance.
When I covered these issues for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I once interviewed the newly appointed coach of a newly created women’s rowing team at a major southern university. This was a sport that was added solely for the school in question to get its Title IX numbers right and not invite unwanted litigation. Now rowing is a legitimate and wonderful sport, and this campus was located near an ideal body of water to field this sport, so all of this made sense on the surface.
But when I asked this upbeat young female coach how she was planning to fill as many as 50 or so roster spots, she told me that one method included scouring the campus, looking for female students with long arms and legs.
I kid you not.
She wasn’t particular about demanding any previous rowing experience, or even a background in competitive sports, for that matter. She had to get numbers, and get them fast. Does this not fit the definition of “underqualified?”
My next questions, which I realize were a bit unfair to ask her, were as follows: So where is the interest level here? Where is the groundswell of female students demanding a rowing team? She really didn’t have any good answers, for she was hired only to recruit and coach the team, not provide the rationale.
This was in the late 1990s, and ever since any questions along these lines have come to be rhetorical. UConn women’s hoops coach Geno Auriemma — who’s becoming perhaps the sanest observer of women and sports that we have — was asked about all this by ESPN’s Hannah Storm on Tuesday. He too mentioned football, but also said this:
“Title IX is supposed to provide an opportunity. It’s not supposed to demand that you participate in that opportunity.”
Bingo. This was never the intent of Title IX, which was passed, ironically enough, to shatter artificial numerical limits placed on women in education.
The law must stay on the books and it must be enforced. There are still some serious problems with the proper funding and resourcing of existing women’s teams, as this recent series in the Ball State student newspaper demonstrates. This should be the greater emphasis of Title IX enforcement, not the further addition of sports for the sake of playing the numbers game.
But the 3-part test for Title IX sports compliance is broken, and needs to be fixed. We need a new set of regulations to reflect the status of female college athletes today, and not in the late 1970s, when the test was formulated and when I was in college. It is a very different world now, and a much better one.
Before we can do that, we must also have an honest discussion about women and their interest in competing in intercollegiate sports. The Times is rolling out more stories on Title IX compliance that I hope will seriously delve into this subject in ways the first installment of this series did not.