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Level Playing Fields: Women Athletes

July 4, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: One of the most visible signs of the fast-paced growth of women sports is the WNBA, the pro-basketball league that is now five years old. Here in Washington, the WNBA Mystics are practicing under Coach Marianne Stanley.

MARIANNE STANLEY, Coach, Washington Mystics: She’s responding to defense. What is she going to do she just walks in here and…

TERENCE SMITH: Stanley says the quality of the women’s game has improved at every level, in large part because of Title IX, a 30-year-old law designed to bring equality to women and men in a aspects of public education, including sports.

MARIANNE STANLEY: Each year, the talent level and the talent pool gets bigger and bigger and competition gets better. I think we’ve seen, you know, the first phase of what Title IX can do for women in terms of their opportunities and their abilities to compete at a very high level.

TERENCE SMITH: It was a different story in the early 1970s, when Stanley was an all-American point guard at Immaculata College in Pennsylvania. Back then, women sports accounted for 2 percent of collegiate sports budgets, and almost zero athletic scholarships.

MARIANNE STANLEY: You didn’t have the facilities, and all the trappings of success, and all the trappings of equipment, travel, those kinds of things that you see the players today enjoying.

TERENCE SMITH: The long process of change started in June 1972, when President Nixon signed into law a new title to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Title IX. The statute bans sexual discrimination at all schools receiving federal money.

In practice, it applies across the board at the college level, where virtually every private and public institution admits students who receive federal financial aid. On the sports field that means schools have to give men and women equal opportunities to play, scholarship dollars that reflect overall rates of participation in sports, and equal treatment in equipment and facilities.

Since Title IX became law, the number of college female athletes has increased five-fold, to 150,000. There used to be five male athletes for every female athlete. Now it’s about one and a half to one. At the highest level of competition, including the Olympics, American women athletes frequently credit Title IX for their success.

But recently, the law has attracted controversy. In the past decade, colleges have canceled some 400 men’s programs in lower-profile sports like swimming and golf. At the same time, other men’s teams have been added, but the casualties often blame their fate on Title IX. This past year, when the University of Minnesota put its national championship golf team on the chopping board, it cited budget issues, as did the University of Massachusetts when it canceled its men’s gymnastics team. The gymnasts blamed what they called a quota system, noting that men’s football and basketball are deemed untouchable.

BILL STRICKLAND, Interim Athletic Director: It’s important to the alums, it’s important to the visibility and the exposure to the university that these high profile sports remain competitive.

TERENCE SMITH: Men’s college wrestlers may have been hit the hardest, losing some 170 teams in the last few years. Two of those teams, as well as the group representing wrestling coaches, sued the Department of Education in May, challenging the way it enforces Title IX.

TERENCE SMITH: We pick up the Title IX debate now with Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. As we heard, they filed the lawsuit challenging federal government enforcement of the act. And Donna Lopiano is executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation. She was a nine time all-American in softball, and has coached collegiate men and women’s volleyball, women’s basketball and softball. And Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-president of the National Women’s Law Center. She has been involved in numerous Title IX and athletic discrimination cases. And Melana Zyla Vickers, visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum; her organization filed an amicus brief on the wrestlers’ behalf.

Welcome to all of you. Donna Lopiano, let me begin with you and ask you, look back on Title IX, its 30th birthday, and tell us what difference it’s made.

DONNA LOPIANO, Women’s Sports Foundation: Well, it really should be a celebration. You know, if it weren’t for Title IX, we’d still have 300,000 high school girls participating in sports instead of the current 2.8 million; we’d still have 30,000 women participating on a college level instead of the 150,000; and, you know, women would still be getting $100,000 a year in college athletic scholarships instead of the $431 million they’re getting right now. There’s still little more to be done, however. Male athletes still have 30 percent more participation opportunities and $133 million more per year in athletic aid, so good news and some work to do.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Mike Moyer, your organization has filed a lawsuit against the way the law is administered. Tell us why. What’s your problem with it?

MICHAEL MOYER, National Wrestling Coaches Association: Well, I’d like to start by saying we completely applaud the opportunities that women have gained in intercollegiate athletics over the last 30 years. It’s… we don’t dispute for a second that the women were discriminated against in the early ’70s, but a lot has changed over the last 30 years as evidenced by the fact that there’s over 300 more intercollegiate programs for women today than there are for men.

But we completely embrace Title IX as it was originally written, but we want to see a more fair and reasonable regulation; one that provides for equal opportunity based on interest, not based on this strict quota system that was the result of a 1996 interpretation that came out of the Office of Civil Rights.

DONNA LOPIANO: Mike, are you contending that men are more interested in sports than women? You’re going to buy into that stereotype?

MICHAEL MOYER; No, I wouldn’t go there. We know today that 41 percent of high school and college athletes today, as we speak, are women, and 59 percent are men, and I don’t say that to suggest that those numbers won’t continue to change, and in what direction, I really don’t know. But what we do know is that Title IX is essentially in place to prohibit intentional gender- based discrimination on campuses that receive federal aid. And what we’re seeing in the last decade is the elimination of 355 men’s programs; many have been directly attributed to the application of this gender quota.

DONNA LOPIANO: During the…

TERENCE SMITH: All right, let me… let me…

DONNA LOPIAN: …During the same period.

TERENCE SMITH:…Donna, let me ask Marcia Greenberger to come in on this and tell us about those numbers, as you interpret them.

MARCIA GREENBERGER, National Women’s Law Center: Yeah. Well, first of all, I think the numbers that were cited by mike are actually very misleading. In fact, during the whole period of time that Title IX has been in effect, as the government studies showed, looking over this period, the number of opportunities for men has gone up. The number of participants for male athletes has gone up. Of course it’s gone up dramatically…

TERENCE SMITH: So on both sides. Men and women.

MARCIAL GREENBERGER: …For women, too. So it’s been a win-win situation for both men and women during the time that Title IX has been in effect. Of course it’s also true that for every two dollars that’s spent for the women’s… rather, the men’s program, only one dollar is spent for the women’s program. And so as Donna said, the big bucks are still in the women’s… in the men’s program. The women’s program is still struggling to move up, and it hasn’t operated by any means as a quota, when not only twice the dollars are put into the men’s program, but as Mike himself said, only 41 percent of the opportunities are going to women.


MARCIA GREENBERGER: Courts across the country reference the wrestlers’ lawsuit that Mike has brought. Every court across the country that has looked at these quota charges has rejected them out of hand. Most courts around the country have looked at the issue. They’ve gone nowhere because the Title IX standards, they’re not new standards in 1996. There are standards that have been in effect for over 20 years, and, in fact, the wrestlers’ case tries to set aside the 1975 regulations issued under the Ford Administration, ’70s policies, all the way along the line. So we’re really talking about a struggle to be sure that the strong policies that have led to the increase of women, and not to the decrease men’s opportunities, remain in place.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Melana Vickers, let me ask you, your organization has in fact joined the wrestlers with… in that suit, and…

MELANA ZYLA VICKERS, Independent Women’s Forum: Well, written an amicus brief yes.

TERENCE SMITH:…in the form of an amicus brief. What problem do you have with the way the law is administered?

MELANA ZYLA VICKERS: Well, in effect, it harms men’s teams, which we’re seeing with the example… just take the last two months. In the last two months alone, there have been 14 teams dropped in U.S. colleges. That’s a dramatic number. In fact, not all the teams are male. Some of them are female gymnastics teams, and I believe there may even be a women’s swimming team in there somewhere. Now a policy that, in effect, gobbles up sports teams is not a policy that’s working correctly. If it’s all supposed to be in the interest of more participation in college sports, then surely the result should be more sports, but fewer.

TERENCE SMITH: But is it the policy that’s doing the gobbling, or choices made by colleges?

MELANA ZYLA VICKERS: The policy is doing the gobbling. And Marcia mentions 1975. And I don’t want to get too pointy-headed and bureaucratic about it, but there was a policy decision in 1979 under which in practice college administrators have to look at the number of women students they have, and render equal the number of sports slots for women… render equal the number of women students and the number of sports slots for women.


MELANA ZYLA VICKERS: And in practice that means that you get… you have to chop back men’s teams and you have to chop back, on occasion, women’s teams when the two are locked close in together, and that’s been a bad effect, really.

MARCIA GREENBERGER: I’m… I’m very puzzled. I really don’t understand. I think it is true that some men’s teams have been cut, and wrestling is one over the years. On the other hand, men’s baseball has gone up dramatically– over 200 new men’s baseball teams; men’s lacrosse, men’s crew. Other teams for men have gone up; other teams for women have gone up. Title IX doesn’t protect every single team. Schools have lots of flexibility. Overall, men’s opportunities have gone up, overall women’s opportunities have gone up, and you’re exactly right. Some teams get cut, some women’s teams get cut, some men’s teams get cut.

MELANA ZYLA VICKERS: But the real question is that…

MARCIA GREENBERGER: But the real question is do we have fairness of opportunity?


MARCIA GREENBERGER: Do we have an equal chance for women to play? And the arguments that I’ve heard both the independent women’s forum make and the wrestlers in the lawsuit make is that women shouldn’t be getting these kinds of opportunities because they’re not as interested in playing as men. They’re inherently– and there are cites to Darwin about inherently women having different interests, and being hard wired to go into different areas.

MELANA ZYLA VICKERS: Well, presumably… presumably it’s a group such as yours.

MARCIA GREENBERGER: And that’s where these quota charges have come from and that’s why they’ve been rejected.

MELANA ZYLA VICKERS: Presumably, if a group such as yours is happy about Title IX and happy about 30 years of Title IX experience, you’d use the… you’d use roughly the description that there is some rise in women’s opportunity in female athletics in college.


MELANA ZYLA VICKERS: Now, given the fact we’ve had 30 years of that kind of experience under Title IX, how is it that there are still four male athletes in college for every three women athletes? Isn’t at some point the question raised… is it possible that women are simply less interested in college sports than men? I mean, my goodness, anyone who has a father or a brother or a daughter or a mother can make distinctions between how women and men feel about sports. I don’t see what’s so criminal about that.

DONNA LOPIANO: Let’s talk about the elephant.

TERENCE SMITH: Donna, come in on this.

DONNA LOPIANO: Yeah, let’s talk about the elephant in the middle of the room. What stops opportunities is money. And these are budgetary decisions. When moneys aren’t allocated to start new women’s teams, that stops progress in terms of opportunities to play sports. That’s why there’s 41 percent. If somebody’s cutting an existing men’s team, it’s because of budgetary decision, not because of Title IX.

And schools, instead of giving each sport a smaller piece of the pie, make a philosophical decision that says, “I want a few number of sports. I want to treat them like kings and queens, and I’m just going to cut off the low people on the totem pole because I want this size program.” That is not a function of Title IX. It’s a philosophical decision.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, Mike Moyer, how… how… if equity is the goal here, how do you achieve it what does your organization argue is the best way to achieve it?

MICHAEL MOYER: Well, I’d like to make two quick points. There are statistics out there that suggest that men have received increased opportunities in intercollegiate athletics since the mid-’80s. The fact of the matter is the NCAA has added institutions over… about 250 new institutions have come into the NCAA with preexisting programs.

TERENCE SMITH: By institutions, you’re referring to colleges and universities?

MICHAEL MOYER: Correct. There have been institutions, colleges and universities out there that were not NCAA member institutions. They were affiliated with other governing bodies, if you will, that have come into the NCAA. So there has been about… somewhere in the neighborhood of 33 percent to 35 percent increase in the number of institutions, but there’s only been a 5 percent increase in the number of male participants. So…

DONNA LOPIANO: Not true, Mike. Not true. You know the GAO…

MICHAEL MOYER: Simply put…

DONNA LOPIANO: …The GAO study has both NAIA and NCA schools, and you know the increase at the college level in male participation opportunities at NCA levels is 24 percent.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay, Mike, go ahead and finish your point.

MICHAEL MOYER: These opportunities that they’re suggesting were preexisting opportunities. But to get to the next point about it’s the way universities decide to spend their funds, at Marquette University, their intercollegiate wrestling program was almost entirely funded through private donations for a period of eight years. And I might add that Marquette University doesn’t have an intercollegiate football program. Yet in the Spring of 2001, the Administration still was forced to eliminate its wrestling program because they weren’t proportionate as required by this gender quota. It was clearly intentional discrimination against these wrestlers just because they were men, which flies in the face of everything that Title IX stands for, and it is…

MARCIA GREENBERGER: Well, let me just say what…

TERENCE SMITH: All right, that’s a gender quota is what Mike Moyer calls it.

MARCIA GREENBERGER: Well, again, it’s throwing quotas around as if they were forced to do it. I know Marquette just announced they’re building a whole new $31 million athletic facility. So if they had wanted to put the money into continuing the wrestling program and expand opportunities for women and add more men’s teams, too, they could have done it. These are all choices that Marquette is making. But to go back, this idea of quota, to pick up on the point you had made as well, is trying to say that women are not as interested as men, and so if they’re not getting equal opportunities, that’s fine because they really don’t want them or they don’t deserve them or whatever it may be.

MELANA ZYLA VICKERS: No, that’s not the point I’m making.

MARCIA GREENBERGER: And I think that at the end of the day, what the law, what the policies from the ’70s has said is that all schools legally have to do is accommodate the interests and abilities of the students. And the truth is, we’ve got, as Donna said earlier, close to three million high school girls playing sports today, and only about 150,000 opportunities to play intercollegiate athletics. Obviously there’s enormous demand on the male side and the female side that isn’t being accommodated.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Melana Vickers?

MELANA ZYLA VICKERS: You know, this is an area of discussion that’s so just chock full of data that one person can throw at another. But just to take a couple of points, Marcia knows as well as I do that at all women’s schools, participation in sports is below 20 percent. I mean, I’m being generous if I say 15 percent of women at all women’s colleges participate in sports. So this notion that there are women clamoring to get on to such and such a team at a given college in the U.S. is… is really kind of misleading.

DONNA LOPIANO: Only 3 percent… only 3 percent of men at the University of Texas play sports. What does that mean? Throwing around 20 percent of a small school and 3 percent of a big school.

MELANA ZYLA VICKERS: Well, what it means is that a rule that in effect buffaloes college sports administrators into having the number of female sports slots reflect the number of female students in general is a rule that doesn’t reflect the reality of women’s interest in sports.

TERENCE SMITH: And Mike… let’s let Mike Moyer comment on that. Would you agree with that?

MICHAEL MOYER: Yeah. I don’t want to comment on whether men or women have more interest in sports. We know clearly today there’s more men participating in high school and college athletics than there are women participating. The fact of the matter is equal opportunity needs to be based on interest, not on a strict quota law. And we can debate for days and hours and years and however long, but the fact of the matter is there’s no mention of a gender quota in the language of Title IX itself.


MARCIA GREENBERGER: And the policies explicitly say, as every court has recognized, that if a school meets the interests of the students– male and female– in a fair way, it’s complying. And that’s why they said there is no quota.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay, I’m afraid we have to leave it there. I think we see why this is such a hotly debated issue. Thank you all very much.

ALL IN UNISON: Thank you.