About 100 James Madison University athletes rallied for changes in Title IX at the U.S. Department of Education’s Washington headquarters Thursday, a few weeks after university administrators announced a plan  to slash 10 varsity sports to comply with the 1972 law that bars sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal aid.
Dressed in purple and gold athletic gear and apt to break into the Dukes’ fight song, the crowd of male and female athletes honored the spirit of Title IX, but criticized how the Education Department interprets and carries out the law in college athletics.
Students argued that requiring institutions to demonstrate that the rate of male to female athletic participation matches the gender ratio of the student body -- the so-called “proportionality prong," which is one of three mechanisms a college can use to demonstrate compliance with the law's participation requirements -- enforces an artificial quota that discriminates against male athletes. Sponsors of the rally called for scrapping the proportionality provision and strengthening the department's guidance and support for colleges to use surveys of students' athletic interests as an alternative.
“How has a law that was written to stop discrimination become a source of it?” asked Stacy Fuller, a student representative on JMU’s Board of Visitors. “Just as affirmative action quotas are unconstitutional, so too are the gender quotas required under Title IX.”
“Legislation should reflect the times, and Title IX no longer does,” said Mitch Dalton, captain of the men’s swimming team, whose members stripped down to Speedos and ran laps around the Education Department after the rally Thursday to demonstrate “how they were left out in the cold,” as interpreted by Jim McCarthy, spokesman for the College Sports Council , which sponsored the rally with the Independent Women’s Forum .
Yet, while the students who spoke at Thursday’s rally without exception cited a need to revisit the interpretation of the federal law, and the proportionality prong in particular, criticisms specific to their university -- including a lack of student input in the decision -- crept into some of their comments.
One student said in an interview that many athletes, though disgruntled with Title IX, also feel that the athletic cuts represented a business decision, at least in part -- a statement echoed by the university’s own Title IX consultant in an October interview  with Inside Higher Ed.This student also said that James Madison is positioning itself to move its Division I-AA football team to Division I-A within the next decade. The student, who asked not to be named, added that many peers felt the same way, but had suggested that the topic not be raised at Thursday’s rally, which was meant to take aim at Title IX.
James Madison administrators have maintained that the primary reason for the Board of Visitors’ September 29 decision to cut 10 sports -- seven for men and three for women -- was to bring the university into compliance with Title IX by demonstrating that its athletic participation ratio mirrors that of its overall student enrollment, which is, at 61 to 39 percent, predominantly female. Madison's plans to cut men’s archery, cross country, gymnastics, indoor track, outdoor track, swimming and wrestling, as well as women’s archery, fencing and gymnastics, will go into effect July 1.
Critics have argued that the university hid behind Title IX in deciding to prioritize its financial resources, focusing them on a smaller number of stronger teams. But James Madison administrators say Title IX forced their hand, and argue that the university, which is running 28 varsity athletic programs this year, resorted to the proportionality prong because it could not meet Title IX’s requirements under the other two mechanisms for compliance -- demonstrating a history of adding new sports or meeting existing student demand -- because James Madison could not afford extra sports. Two women’s club sports have expressed a desire for varsity status, demands that administrators say they can't accommodate.
“No decision is made in a vacuum, but were it not for Title IX, I think we would still have 28 teams,” said Andy Perrine, a university spokesman. He added that the $548,000 saved by the cuts will be redirected toward scholarships, primarily for women’s sports, and that the university has no plans right now to pursue Division I-A status in football, which does not stand to gain any direct financial windfall from the cuts.
Fuller, a non-voting member of the Board of Visitors who is not privy to their closed sessions, where the debate was held, echoed Perrine’s sentiment. “This was not a decision motivated by money,” she said. “James Madison was locked into a corner by Title IX.”
But others in the student body, along with representatives from women’s rights organizations, disagree. They argue that the law is not responsible for the cuts and that Thursday’s rally was misdirected.
“Title IX is being used as a scapegoat by the administration," Allison Truglio, a member of the James Madison women's gymnastics team, said during a competing Thursday press conference sponsored by two women's groups. "Some people want to attack the administration and say what you’re doing is wrong, and some people want to attack the department of higher education and say, ‘You need to change Title IX. You’re letting these schools do this.’ It’s hard to decipher which side is right.” The two sponsors of the event at which Truglio spoke, the National Women’s Law Center  and the Women’s Sports Foundation , are strong supporters of Title IX as a mechanism for opening new opportunities, and the organizations’ leaders refute the notion that Title IX requires institutions to slash athletic programs.
“When you realize that the cost of adding two or three women’s teams to come into compliance would have been as miniscule as $500,000 ... you wonder why they wouldn’t have chosen a different action,” said Donna Lopiano, chief executive officer of the Women’s Sports Foundation. “It sure wasn’t Title IX making the school drop three women’s teams; that’s obvious. And it wasn’t why it dropped the men’s teams, either,” added Lopiano, who said the decision reflects the institution’s chosen priorities, including among them the preservation of large men’s basketball and football budgets.
Lopiano said she feels the College Sports Council “took advantage” of the situation, convincing upset students that if they changed Title IX, they would get their sports back -- “which is the furthest thing from the truth.”
But officials at the College Sports Council argue that the law has been hijacked by groups like Lopiano’s and that, in practice, Title IX enforcement has led to cuts in men’s programs across the country, with James Madison's sports teams just the latest, and likely not the last, casualty. Parents, coaches and representatives from several other college athletic programs, including programs at the University of Maryland, the College of William and Mary and Howard University, were present at the Washington rally, showing their support.
“This isn’t about boys versus girls, Republicans versus Democrats.... It’s about insanity versus sanity,” said Jessica Gavora, a spokeswoman for the College Sports Council. Members of the council, along with student representatives, met with officials from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights immediately following the rally, asking for relief from the proportionality prong of Title IX.
Gavora said the current interpretation of the law has locked James Madison administrators into a box: "Nobody wants some group of students to be discriminated against in the name of Title IX," she said.
Jennifer Chapman, captain of the James Madison women’s cross country team, said that while she fears universities can use Title IX as a scapegoat or “excuse to cut non-revenue sports,” there is also a problem with the administration of the law itself, especially with use of the proportionality prong in an era in which female enrollment outpaces that of men. “We need to get gender equality across the board,” Chapman said.
Perrine, the James Madison spokesman, said that the university takes no position on the appropriateness of the proportionality prong. However, the institution supported the student protesters logistically, providing university transportation for the drive to Washington. Calling James Madison “a campus with a conscience,” Perrine praised the students for taking their concerns to the federal government.
“It’s what we would have expected from JMU students.”