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She Got Game

February 2, 2006

“Additional clarification” for Title IX compliance issued by the U.S. Department of Education in March could set female athletes back decades. That was the sentiment from proponents of women’s sports Wednesday at a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

In March the Education Department, with no announcement, posted a letter on its Web site informing institutions that they can gauge student interest in athletic participation using e-mail surveys, where non-responses count as an answer of “no interest.” If an institution can demonstrate that it is accommodating the interest for women’s sports, it can comply with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 without having a ratio of men’s to women’s athletes similar to that of the student body -- the more common way for colleges to demonstrate compliance.

Supporters of women’s sports were outraged at what they called a weakening of Title IX using unreliable survey tactics. Accommodating interest has always been a compliance option, but Education Department officials have said that few schools used it because it was not clear how to measure interest. After the letter was posted, Susan Aspey, an Education Department spokeswoman, said the “guidance is simply additional information to help schools.”

At the hearing, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said that in 1972, when Title IX was enacted, “Congress recognized that women benefit” -- from self-confidence to lowered risk of osteoporosis -- “from sports as much as men do,” and that only a strong Title IX can provide those benefits to more women.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) noted that only 1 in 27 women participated in high school sports before Title IX, as opposed to 1 in 3 currently. “Frankly, I’m worried about e-mail surveys” because they are very unscientific, she said, as Billie Jean King mimed applause in the front audience row.

By the end of the hearing, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the committee, said that he felt “we’ve reached a point where we have to” have a Congressional hearing to discuss whether electronic surveys should be disallowed as a compliance method. Stevens said that he thinks college athletic spending should be based completely on participation. “If more women will participate, then they should get more money,” he said.

For much of the hearing, female athletic luminaries described the frustration of not having equal opportunities. As a child, “I would ask God, ‘why would you give me this talent if I can’t use it,’ ” said Dorothy (Dot) Richardson, who used that talent to win two Olympic softball gold medals, and is now vice chair of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Not every talented player was so fortunate. “After [the 1996 Olympics], I got letters from friends” expressing regret that they didn’t see a future in softball and quit back in high school. Richardson said that it’s critical for women to see athletic opportunities at the college and even the professional levels.

Donna de Varona, a two-time gold medal swimmer and sports commentator, said that America sets the agenda for women’s sports, and that any weakening of Title IX, like the “additional clarification” letter, is a loud message.

De Varona added that there is “still widespread noncompliance with Title IX” in high schools, where data are sometimes sparse, but also in colleges. She pointed to Stanford University as an example of an institution that has provided sufficient opportunities for women. Several witnesses noted that, while there are more women than men in college, about 38 percent of an athletics department’s money for teams, on average, goes toward women’s sports, and smaller percentages for recruiting female athletes. De Varona was a member of the Education Department’s 2002 Commission on Athletic Opportunity, where “we were promised [Title IX] would stay intact,” she said. De Varona added that e-mail surveys, “in these days of e-mail spam,” will allow colleges to “evade their obligation.”

Some fans of non-revenue men’s college sports -- which includes virtually all sports other than football and basketball -- have long asked for modifications to Title IX, and welcomed the Education Department’s clarification. Men’s non-revenue sports programs have been disappearing in recent years, most dramatically in wrestling and gymnastics. Some Title IX critics have said that, rather than creating new opportunities for women, Title IX has led athletics departments to cut back men’s teams.

Christine H.B. Grant, associate professor of health and sports studies at the University of Iowa, echoed past statements by the NCAA's president, Myles Brand, in her response to such critics. She said that losses in non-revenue sports are not due to Title IX, but rather in part to declining interest in those sports -- in gymnastics especially, among both men and women -- and, at Division I-A institutions, to runaway spending on football and basketball, which she called “the arms race.” Spending on football and basketball has accelerated faster than overall university spending, and has increased over three-fold since 1985. Grant noted that most “revenue” sports are actually in the red -- several million dollars in the red -- and non-revenue sports often lose out to the big-two’s insatiable hunger for more resources. “Last year we paid our football coach $2 million, and the president of our university $300,000,” she said.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) emphasized the need for Title IX to stay strong in the face of arguments that it is no longer needed. “My sense is that [if left to the market], we wouldn’t have any women’s sports at all,” he said.

One of those who testified, Jennie Finch, star pitcher for the U.S. softball team that won gold in Athens and previously one of People’s 50 most beautiful people, however, is a living example that women’s athletes can have wide appeal. But pro women’s leagues have typically struggled to survive.

Catherine (Cat) Reddick, a U.S. gold medal soccer player, implored the committee not to let colleges off the hook. She said she “couldn’t have afforded” college without sports, and that her study abroad came via soccer. “I traveled to places a girl from Birmingham only dreams about,” she said.

Beyond the Olympic golds and health benefits, Tara Erickson, head women’s soccer coach at the University of Oregon, had a simple reason to ask for more spots for female athletes. “Playing college athletics was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said.

 

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