As James Madison University officials announced plans Friday  to eliminate 10 teams, they placed blame for the decision squarely on Title IX, describing the action as a necessary step to fulfill the federal law's requirements of gender equity in the university’s sports program.
Yet to some observers outside James Madison -- including a consultant the university hired to advise it -- the situation can be seen as part of a recent trend of scapegoating the federal law barring sex discrimination for athletic cuts made as much for financial and other reasons as for equity concerns.
“This was, for the most part, a business decision,” said Lamar Daniel, a Title IX compliance consultant and former U.S. Education Department official whom James Madison first hired in 1999. Daniel attributed the university’s decision to cut the teams to a desire to scale back its sports program -- at 28 sports, one of the biggest in Division I -- to a more manageable size and scope in the hope of making the teams it is keeping more competitive without spending more.
“This is about funding; this is about money," he said. "It’s not about Title IX; Title IX is only a consideration in this matter in that you have to consider the impact of Title IX in any athletic decision.”
Andy Perrine, associate vice president of communications and marketing at James Madison, said that budgetary concerns certainly played a role in the decision to use funds earmarked for the sacrificed sports to boost other athletic programs. But he insisted that Title IX concerns were paramount.
“To eliminate such opportunities for students was absolutely difficult in the extreme. We would not have done it if not for Title IX,” Perrine said. He added: “There’s just about no way we could add more women’s programs and afford it and be in compliance.”
Under the university’s ”Title IX compliance program,” as Wharton Rivers Jr., a member of its Board of Visitors, termed it at a news conference Friday, James Madison will eliminate seven men’s sports -- archery, cross country, gymnastics, indoor track, outdoor track, swimming and wrestling -- and three women’s sports: archery, fencing and gymnastics, effective July 1, 2007. The university currently has a roughly 50-50 gender split in sports participation, but its enrollment is slanted 61-39 percent in favor of women.
University officials said the money saved by the cuts will go toward providing the full allotment of scholarships for women’s golf, tennis and swimming, in addition to partial scholarship funding for men’s golf and tennis, with the aim of fully funding those sports by 2011. The decision affects 144 athletes and 11 coaches, eight part-time and three full-time. James Madison has pledged to honor scholarship commitments to all involved students -- currently, eight students on the 10 teams receive a total of $13,500 in scholarships.
Perrine said James Madison officials had no choice but to comply with Title IX’s participation standard via its proportionality mechanism, which requires that the rate at which male and female athletes participate in sports roughly mirrors the total student population. The already large size of the university’s athletics program made it impossible for officials there to either expand its offerings of women’s sports or respond to on-campus demand for two club sports that are seeking varsity-level status, which are the other two ways an educational institution can comply with Title IX’s participation requirement. That left James Madison in the position of having to use the proportionality option, Perrine said.
Experts on Title IX said James Madison’s decision to slash sports, and particularly the inclusion of three women’s sports among those eliminated, indicate that more was at play than just concerns about compliance.
“Whenever you simply state that, ‘We did this because of Title IX,’ it’s inaccurate, because you had a solution that would have been possible and still kept you in compliance with Title IX without cuts,” said Donna Lopiano, chief executive officer of the Women’s Sports Foundation. Budget cuts across the board, especially in marquee sports like basketball and football, would have allowed all sports to continue, she said.
“It appears to me, looking at what they’ve done, is that they’re choosing to have a smaller program operating at a higher level of competition than a large program, being a jack-of-all-trades, master of none,” Lopiano said.
“That’s perfectly within their realm to do, but it’s important to say it the right way. Rather than making Title IX a scapegoat, all of it should be said, not just the one piece of it: ‘We’ve decided that we’ve got to do a better job of complying with Title IX; this was a prefect opportunity to reassess our athletic program,’ ” Lopiano said.
Lopiano said that when colleges attribute decisions to cut programs solely to Title IX, they risk inciting resistance to the law and perhaps to women’s sports programs in general, particularly from partisans from the men's teams (almost never football or basketball) that are inevitably eliminated or gutted as a result.
Daniel pointed out that James Madison, a university of 17,000 students, competes with the big Division I powers in every sport but football, where it competes in Division I-AA and won the national championship in 2004. The university was not prompted to make the cuts by a specific event, he said, but simply did it after a multiyear planning process to address increasing costs. The fact that the university was not in compliance with Title IX -- and was not in a position to add other sports in response to demand from female students to add sports -- did play a role, he said, but so did the university’s desire “to live within its means.”
At James Madison, the president of the student body, Brandon Eickel, said that after a conversation with the university’s athletics director, he was confident the administration had no better option. He said he hoped students would vent their frustration with the cuts at the law itself. “It really was out of their hands. It was something that needed to be done,” he said.
“Title IX I feel was needed in 1972 ... but now I feel like it’s hurting more people than it’s helping,” Eickel added. “The law needs to be changed and adjusted at the time.”
That’s the sort of reaction that supporters of Title IX say are inevitable when institutions like James Madison make decisions to kill sports and lay them at the doorstep of the federal law. “People have created this perception of a zero sum game,” Lopiano said. “If women are going to benefit then men will lose. That’s what’s not fair about just saying, ‘We did this because of Title IX.’ They did this because they want the men’s sports to be better, too.”