No Peace in Title IX Land

July 13, 2007

With dueling reports and a war of words and statistics, advocates for women’s sports and for male athletes have sought to frame a debate (for politicians, journalists and others) about whether Title IX has helped female college athletes at the expense of men. While advocates for male athletes have produced statistics to argue that what they see as overly aggressive enforcement of the federal law barring sex discrimination has prompted colleges to cut back on sports opportunities for men, women’s groups have cited their own data to show that despite progress driven by the law, women’s participation in college sports still lags badly behind men’s.

There was faint hope that with a report of its own on trends in sports participation, the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative arm, might be able to help adjudicate the matter.

Oh well.

The GAO issued a report Thursday that examined how the participation of men and women in college sports has changed since 1991. Using data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the federal study found that women and men alike had made gains in the last 15 years, but that the numbers of women’s teams and of female athletes had grown at greater rates than for men’s teams and male athletes. But “men’s participation levels were greater than women’s throughout this time period, both in absolute terms and relative to their respective enrollments,” the GAO report found.

Those findings are relatively consistent with conclusions reached by the Women’s Sports Foundation in a major report it released last month. So it is not surprising that advocates for women’s sports welcomed the GAO study, which puts a federal imprimatur on the view that men and women alike have continued to gain, if unevenly, under Title IX.

“This report underscores that we need to keep Title IX strong and the job is not yet done,” Marcia Greenberger, co-President of the National Women’s Law Center, said in a prepared statement. “Title IX works for women and men. It has opened doors to young women in athletics, and at the same time increased men’s opportunities.”

But the GAO study brought condemnation and the threat of a fight from the College Sports Council, which advocates on behalf of male athletes and men’s sports teams, some of which it views as increasingly endangered.

In a report it issued in March, the council argued that figures the NCAA and advocates for women’s sports regularly cite to show that the number of men’s teams and male athletes have stayed relatively constant or grown slightly over the last 15 years (while the number of women’s teams and female athletes have soared) understate the level of cuts by failing to note how many more colleges have joined the NCAA over that time. In arguing for the Education Department to alter how it enforces Title IX's participation requirements, the group released data showing that many more teams have been eliminated than the NCAA data suggest.

The GAO actually made a nod in that direction in its new report, looking not only at the overall trends in participation within the NCAA, but also at a “closed” group of colleges that had maintained sports programs within the NCAA throughout the 15 years under review. And indeed, male athletes showed significant lower rates of growth in that sample than in the overall group – but still showed an increase.

But the sports council objected to the GAO study nonetheless, citing the agency’s reliance on NCAA data that the men’s sports group says differ significantly from what colleges and universities report to the U.S. Education Department under the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act. The group also asserted that the NCAA had refused to give the government agency access to college by college data that would have allowed the GAO to better compare the association’s numbers to those reported to the Education Department.

“It is disturbing to see that the GAO has blindly trusted the NCAA and built the report around their non-verifiable data,” Eric Pearson, chairman of the College Sports Council, said in a news release Thursday. “You would think the accounting world would have learned from the lessons of Enron. The NCAA is not a reliable source. It has made no secret of its alliance with groups advocating gender quotas that are hurting men’s sports.”

The sports council called on Congress and the GAO’s inspector general to investigate “how and why this inconsistent information was presented and how far back it goes,” said Jessica Gavora, the group’s vice president for policy.

The author of the GAO report, George A. Scott, director for education, workforce and income security issues at the agency, acknowledged that the NCAA had rebuffed the GAO’s efforts to gather specific institutional data, which “they felt was proprietary.” But he said the federal agency “by and large got what we needed,” and “took a number of steps to test the reliability of the NCAA data.”

Scott also noted that he was reassured by the fact that the GAO’s report (based on the NCAA data) and the Women’s Sports Foundation’s study, which was based on the Education Department’s data, reached largely similar findings.

“I’m confident in what we found,” he said.

A primary intended audience for the GAO report -- members of Congress -- were clearly paying attention to it, and they, like the advocates, had similarly conflicting reactions. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement that the report "does show that important gains have been made to increase the number of women’s college sports teams over the past decade. But the fact remains that women still face disparities and discrimination on our nation’s athletic fields. Even worse, the advancement of women’s rights has been slowed by the Bush administration, which has woefully failed to enforce the Title IX law in recent years -- weakening critical protections for female athletes."

Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the former Speaker of the House and a former high school wrestling coach, said it was "disconcerting to see two organizations that pride themselves on integrity -- the GAO and NCAA -- collaborate on a report that is at best incomplete. While I appreciate the intention of this analysis, I cannot comprehend how the participation numbers submitted by the NCAA to the GAO are so dramatically higher than the figures given to the Department of Education by individual colleges and universities."

"Further investigation," he said, is called for.

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