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Few would dispute the intentions of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 as it applies to sports. To prevent discrimination on the basis of sex, the law requires all institutions receiving federal funding to provide equal opportunity in athletic participation.

But a new study, based on participation data and the hypothesis that women are inherently less interested in sports than men, asserts that Title IX might be taking the wrong approach.

“A greater male predisposition for sports interest does not contradict most arguments made by Title IX proponents,” concludes the study released Wednesday evening in the online journal PLOS ONE. “Nevertheless, our results do suggest that it may be a mistake to base Title IX implementation on the assumption that males and females have, or soon will have, generally equal sports interest.”

The report counters that assumption with three sub-studies that found gender gaps of varying and often significant proportions. The sub-study most relevant to college athletics in particular examined who participated in intramural sports participation at 34 institutions (varied in size and location, and listed in the study). Only about one in four participants (or 24 percent) were female. Intramural programs, like all educational opportunities at federally funded institutions, are subject to Title IX.

Robert Deaner, an associate professor of psychology at Grand Valley State University and the study’s lead author, said he’s a scientist and doesn’t make public policy, and so declined to pose suggestions as to what exactly should be done in response to his findings.

“The policy somehow shouldn’t be based on that. But what do we do that’s better? I don’t know, that’s hard,” Deaner said. “I don’t think there’s any simple solution.”

The second study looked at who worked out at 41 public parks in four states (in general exercise, 37 percent female; 19 percent in individual sports; and 10 percent in team sports); and the third, at who spent their spare time exercising, based on 112,000 people who took the American Time Use Survey (females accounted for 51 percent of exercise participation, 24 percent of total sports participation, and 20 percent of team sports participation).

At the heart of men’s greater interest in physical activity and sports, the study argues, is biology (an evolutionary history of male-versus-male competition and the effect of sex hormones) and society (gender roles, parents, peers, etc.).

But those societal effects work both ways – and are part of the reason we shouldn’t be surprised by (nor draw too much from) the findings, said Erin Buzuvis, a law professor at Western New England University who runs the Title IX Blog

“If we all agree that those kinds of things influence people’s interest, then why are we surprised, in a world where there’s still sex discrimination, that women’s participation in sport is lower than men’s?” Buzuvis said. “Women have inferior opportunities and they have to do so against the cultural grain…. It doesn’t say anything at all about what interest levels would be there absent discrimination and absent these strong cultural forces.”

The passing of Title IX brought about a surge in female athletic participation, the study notes; in high schools, from 7 percent of athletes in 1972 to 42 percent in 2010, and in National Collegiate Athletic Association sports, from 30 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2009. Title IX proponents, including the Women’s Sports Foundation, thus argue that women were not participating in sports due to lack of opportunity, not lack of interest.

But the study posits other ideas to suggest interest is not necessarily equal between the genders: perhaps male students have stronger interest in or desire to be participants or spectators of sports, as surveys have indicated; men may be cut from teams more often than women or participate more in unorganized sports settings not affiliated with schools; or female students might be more likely to participate in sports based on “extrinsic motives” such as athletic scholarships. (The latter suggestions have not been backed up by research.)

The authors argue that intramural activity is a good indicator of interest because participants generally have no incentives other than desire to join (there’s typically not substantial prizes or publicity involved). The gender gap was persistent across all institutions, with the median female participation rate at 28 percent. The study notes that at no institution did females compose 43 percent of intramural athletes, which is the rate of participation across NCAA sports.

However, there are a slew of factors at play that the study does not account for, said Donna A. Lopiano, president of the consulting firm Sports Management Resources. Those include preference for playing time and space being given to historically traditional intramural activities like men’s basketball, institutions neglecting to gauge actual interest in participation, and even then declining to design programs that meet the need of the student body.

“The point is – in terms of intramural and recreational sports – is serving the existing student body. You’re not recruiting kids who are going to play varsity programs,” Lopiano said. “You can’t look at participation numbers and say that equates to the volume of interest, because the program does not begin to meet the needs of interests of men or women…. There’s not enough time, not enough facilities, not enough money.”

Regardless, the way Title IX is applied shouldn’t be at issue based on these data, said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a law professor at Florida Coastal School of Law and senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation. That is because the three-prong test under which colleges can prove they are in compliance with Title IX takes into account student interest. If a college does not provide opportunities for males and females that are proportional to enrollments, and does not have a history of program expansion responsive to developing interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex, it can still adhere to the law by demonstrating that the interests and abilities have been fully accommodated by the present program and there is no unmet demand (via student surveys and such).

“If it is true – some biological reason that girls are not interested – then the law already takes that into account,” Hogshead-Makar said, noting that the severe drop-off from high school to college in athletic participation by both genders and the fact that almost any sport a school adds for either gender fills up immediately suggest there is indeed interest. “It’s interesting data, but their idea – ‘See, boys do this and this and this and therefore there’s something wrong with Title IX’ – is an absurd conclusion.”

Deaner disputed both Lopiano’s and Hogshead-Makar’s points, recalling that the survey respondents said they often took measures to ensure they were meeting demand.

“It’s pretty unlikely that there are large numbers of women clamoring to play, yet the intramural staff (many of whom are women) are ignoring them or refusing to accommodate them. Also, if there are thousands of college women whose interests are being unmet, wouldn’t some of them complain? I’ve never heard of it,” Deaner said. “There’s no data that will ever convince [Title IX proponents].”

Deaner added that the third prong of the Title IX test doesn’t really work because even if colleges know they’ve met demand, public pressure to have proportional participation rates is too great.

Regardless, there are no simple cause-and-effect relationships, Lopiano said.

“All these factors and the current shortfalls in terms of women’s participation in both varsity sports and intramurals – are they understandable? Yes. Are they justifiable? No. Do they require systematic change? Yes,” she said. “Let’s see what kind of leadership steps up and meets that challenge.”

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