Title IX's dark side: Sports gender quotas

By Curt A. Levey

USA Today, July 12, 1999

Nearly 90,000 fans packed the Rose Bowl on Saturday to watch the USA defeat China for the Women’s World Cup soccer championship — a dramatic illustration of the gains American female athletes have made since Title IX’s passage in 1972 guaranteed equal opportunity for women in college athletics.

But for all its benefits, Title IX has a downside as well. At Ohio’s Miami University, for instance, students are mourning the June 30 passing of the men’s wrestling, soccer and tennis teams. The sports’ supporters had failed to raise $13 million in 60 days, the school’s condition for sparing the teams, which it claimed it otherwise couldn’t afford.

Yet the university had enough money to create a women’s precision skating team and send it to play in Europe. Why? Because its athletic department is under pressure to increase the proportion of female athletes by whatever means necessary.

The pressure’s source is the “proportionality rule,” a distorted, quota-based interpretation of Title IX now used to measure compliance. Overzealous bureaucrats, feminist groups and confused federal judges have twisted Title IX’s good intentions into a quota system that effectively mandates that men and women participate in college athletics at identical rates. Because more women can’t be forced to play, proportionality typically is achieved by reducing the number of male athletes. So the events at Miami University — men’s teams eliminated while roster positions on the women’s teams go unfilled — have been repeated across the nation.

The professed goal of proportionality — to remedy the numerical overrepresentation of men in college athletics — would be noble if men and women had identical interests. But men are overrepresented in sports for the same reason women are overrepresented in most other extracurricular activities: Their interests aren’t identical. Studies consistently find higher rates of interest in athletic participation among males, be they eighth-graders or college students.

Thus, it’s no surprise men typically far outnumber women in college intramurals, where anyone can participate, or that athletic participation rates at women’s colleges are substantially lower than at coed schools.

Fixed equations have no room for flexibility

Sadly, reality doesn’t figure into the proportionality equation. Nor does flexibility. The National Organization for Women, for example, has filed a complaint against UCLA and Southern California alleging Title IX noncompliance — ignoring that UCLA, to try to satisfy gender quotas, disbanded a men’s swimming team that produced 20-plus Olympic gold medals and eliminated a nationally ranked men’s gymnastics team.

The NCAA found gender quotas are denying more than 20,000 men a chance to compete in college athletics, compared to 1992 rates — yet fewer than 6,000 female athletes were added during that time. And the quotas hurt the finances of athletic departments, where men’s teams typically bring in the money. At Southern California, for example, men’s teams brought in $18.4 million last year; women’s teams generated $39,000.

The good news is student athletes are fighting back. The men’s wrestling team at California State’s Bakersfield campus, although the school’s most successful sport, had team members cut in the name of gender equity. Citing Title IX’s mandate that no person “be excluded from participation” based on sex, the team successfully argued in federal court that gender-based cuts violate Title IX. This February, the court issued a temporary injunction ordering the wrestlers reinstated.

True fairness respects individual interests

If one sex is more interested in athletics than the other, it should be “overrepresented.” Measuring interest is more difficult than counting heads, but simplicity must never be an excuse for discrimination.

Unfortunately, proportionality advocates reject any solution that acknowledges lower female interest levels, claiming they are an artifact of past discrimination. But that simplistic thinking implies women’s overrepresentation in other activities is the result of past discrimination against men. Should, say, female-dominated college choir groups be eliminated to attain the “correct” gender balance in extracurricular activities?

Let’s hope not. Instead of punishing both sexes equally, fairness is best achieved by respecting the individual interests of men and women, even those interests that don’t conform to the ideological vision of feminist advocacy groups and bureaucrats. True respect requires equal opportunity, not rigid quotas.