The real elephant of Title IX sports compliance

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?

Absolutely not.

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.

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  1. Posted April 27, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for a very solid deconstruction of yesterday’s story. One minor point that you should be aware of: Katie Thomas spoke extensively with Eric Pearson, the Chairman of the College Sports Council, concerning the practice of roster management, yet not one quote from him ended up in the final article. According to Pearson, who I spoke to yesterday, this isn’t the first time that Thomas has done this, and it has the practical effect of making it seem as if there aren’t any credible critics of the law taking part in the debate.

    Bottom line: the exclusion of Pearson appears, at least to us, to be purposeful, and not simply an oversight.

  2. Beau Dure
    Posted April 27, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Nice work, Wendy. I think the issue here is that the second and third prongs aren’t as strong as they should be, and I’ve heard women’s sports advocates say that as well.

    The @USAWrestling Twitter feed raised something that the NYT should consider down the road — when female wrestlers such as Patricia Miranda wrestle with men’s teams, they’re considered “male” athletes.

    Eric — My guess is that whatever the other Eric said just didn’t fit with the story. As I’ve said before, with all due respect, I don’t think the CSC responds well to the issues. The statements on the blog today about the NYT piece don’t really address any of the issues it raises. And I don’t think the NYT piece was written to silence “credible critics” — it demonstrates, without any rhetoric, that the law has become quite convoluted. The fact that athletic directors are being forced to grab people around campus just to fill roster spots speaks far more clearly to the issue.

    That said, it’s worth emphasizing that the NYT says this is the **first** of several stories on the topic. Let’s see how this continues.

  3. Posted April 27, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I wrote a similar critique of the NYT series of articles as well – you can visit my blog, linked above, to read it – but it’s worthy of mention that Ms. Thomas doesn’t mention at all what the proportionality test is in the original article. Not once – and something, you’d think, would be a crucial piece of information to include in the article.

    My blog posting also takes exception at some other aspects not mentioned here, like their “poll” on female participation, polling tricks and trends that were omitted because it didn’t fit the thesis. But overall, this is a spot-on blog posting on the topic. Great work.

  4. BB
    Posted April 28, 2011 at 2:35 am | Permalink

    The southern school with the rowing team added in the late 90’s is probably Clemson. It was a pretty sad state of affairs when they started (I was in school there at the time) with women signing up who had no idea what they were doing, but they eventually won an ACC title (2009) and stay in the top 10-15 nationally. From what I can tell, there has never been a lack of support monetarily from the Ath. Dept. Interestingly, they have a recruitment form on their website that potential students can fill out in order to be recruited.

  5. Carey
    Posted April 28, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Great work. Finally, an intellectually honest piece on this subject.

    My question is this (And I worked for a similar, if not higher regarded paper for 12 years): What would your former editors have thought of this retort? Would they have encouraged it? Or burried it in fear of not being see as “enlightened” enough by their peers?

    I tried to write on this subject (the demise of men’s wrestling) too, and it was squashed. I covered a 4-time state champ whose only scholarship (not full rides either) were at small D-III schools in Ohio (I’m in Florida).

  6. Brian Terrell
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    The “party line” of interest being equal is literally laughable and complete B.S. Any women’s advocate that actually believes this (as opposed to simply making a political point) is a complete fool.

    The real tragedy of Title IX is that government is deciding, based upon completely arbitrary and evidence free criteria, that some (I will admit that the number is small) men should be disadvantaged (save me the line that women “don’t want” this-in reality, that is what must happen given the law as it stands) so that a greater number of women can PLAY SPORTS

  7. Posted May 1, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    First of all I’d like to thank everyone for commenting thoughtfully on a topic that for the most part lends itself to all the wrong kinds of emotions. It’s too bad in the larger arena that the latter tends to be the case.

    Eric, many thanks for the kind words. I’d still like to encourage the CSC to better detail its reform ideas for Title IX. There’s got to be more than reinstating an interest survey and encouraging schools to add sports like cheerleading.

    Beau, if you were in CSC’s shoes, how would you respond, when the athletes for whom you’re advocating don’t have the force of the law as female athletes do and when mainstream media treatment in general — and not just Tuesday’s piece in the NYT — tends to be one-sided and generally not very well-informed?

    LFN, thanks for linking to your blog and letting us know you’re out there. Please keep reading!

    BB, I’m glad schools like Clemson have decided to get good in the sports that they started primarily because of Title IX. It’s too bad the NYT didn’t expand its examination of “underqualified” female athletes into this context.

    Carey, when I was at the AJC, I wrote a story on National Girls and Women in Sports Day that I thought days like this were no longer needed. Initially my (male) editors were taken aback, but they let me write it, slapped an “analysis” label above the headline and I didn’t have to go into hiding. But yes, your experiences delving into this topic from a critical perspective are probably not isolated. My being a woman probably helps me here, I will admit this. The great thing about being out of the MSM is that I don’t have to be shackled when tackling incendiary topics. It truly has been liberating, to borrow a word.

    And Brian, I’m not kidding about women’s advocates fervently believing in the interest issue as they do. They truly think that the only thing keeping women from playing sports at the same rates as men is men keeping them down. About this they are as strident as any issue related to Title IX.

    I’ve got some other thoughts on this subject and some reaction since last week’s story that I’ll post here on Monday, so stay tuned!