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Numbers Game

October 13, 2006

The athletics program at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater typically boasts low numbers: "No. 1" is what its baseball and volleyball teams were after winning Division III national championships in 2005. "No. 2" is what its football team was after falling in the national title game last fall.

But the key number of late has been 44 -- the percentage of intercollegiate athletes at Whitewater who were female in 2005-6.

In order to meet the requirements of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Whitewater officials lowered caps on men's teams -- a process known as "roster management." They have also poured an extra $70,000 into creating women’s junior varsity teams and bolstering staff resources for women’s swimming and diving, track and field and cross-country, said the university’s intercollegiate athletics director, Paul Plinske. The actions are the latest steps in what has been a struggle for the institution since a complaint charging discrimination was filed by a former coach in 1999. An agreement with the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights resolved that complaint and led to some of the steps being taken this year.

In total, 17 fewer spaces are available across Whitewater’s men’s teams this year than in 2005-6, when 355 men participated. The total participation cap in men’s athletic programs is 338 this year, effectively limiting involvement to its level in 2004. All nine men’s sports are affected by the new caps. Coaches met in the spring to determine how many spots would be cut from each roster depending on participation numbers. For instance, Whitewater’s 100-member football roster lost four spots; smaller teams, with 30 athletes or so, lost one.

"In essence we’re not losing a lot of numbers," said Plinske, who added that total female enrollment on campus in 2005-6 was 51 percent. He believes that the changes will bring the gender split among athletes to a more representative 50-50.

Plinske said the university made a conscious effort to employ the "proportionality" prong of Title IX. Under that method -- by far the one colleges tend to rely on -- the ratio of male to female athletes needs to correspond to the ratio of male to female undergraduates.

In a previous effort to comply with Title IX, Whitewater elevated women’s bowling to varsity status in 2002, bringing the total number of varsity offerings to 20 -- 11 women’s sports and nine men’s -- but Plinske said that move alone wasn’t sufficient to satisfy requirements.

"Our campus did not feel that we had a viable sport that could be elevated to a varsity sport," Plinske said. "We looked at this from a holistic perspective, how to improve upon our competitiveness."

"We felt this was the most objective way to come into compliance. We’re going to take a real positive approach here and build our women’s programs without hurting our men’s programs."

But Jessica Gavora, a spokeswoman for the College Sports Council, a group that opposes Title IX’s proportionality prong, said Whitewater’s new roster caps reflect a reality that, despite "a myth" that colleges can comply with Title IX in three ways, institutions feel forced to meet requirements through securing proportional representation in their athletic programs.

"If it’s not outright cutting teams to satisfy proportionality, it’s so-called ‘roster management,’ an evil little euphemism for eliminating men’s opportunities and artificially inflating women’s," said Gavora, who also cited a recent decision to cut 10 sports at James Madison University as a casualty of the proportionality prong.

"If the three-pronged test had three equally valid prongs of compliance, Whitewater should be able to say, ‘Look, we complied under Part II; we added this team (bowling). This is a case that shows you, ‘Look, there’s only one way to comply with this law and to satisfy federal investigators and shield yourself from a lawsuit under Title IX.’"

In a 2003 report on Title IX conducted by the Secretary of Education’s Commission on Opportunity in Athletics, the authors write that meeting the proportionality prong is the only step that can prove an institution has met the law’s requirements without inviting further scrutiny from federal investigators. However, while recognizing that cutting or capping a team may appear to be an easy way to meet compliance requirements, they assert that, "Cutting teams or limiting the available places on teams is not a requirement for complying with Title IX."

"The fundamental premise of Title IX is that decisions to limit opportunities should not be made on the basis of gender," one of the report’s recommendations says. "Therefore, educational institutions should pursue all other alternatives before cutting or capping any team when Title IX compliance is a factor in that decision."

Sidney A. McPhee, president of Middle Tennessee State University and chair of the NCAA’s subcommittee on gender and diversity issues, said he would not advocate that any individual college or university pursue one of the three prongs over another. "I am not one to focus on a cookie-cutter approach," said McPhee, who stipulated that he was speaking individually and not on behalf of the NCAA subcommittee, which has not taken a position on the topic.

"Each institution has to look within and see what makes sense, and what is doable -- keeping in mind the broader goal of providing some balance."

 

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