This year's 35th anniversary of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 has featured plenty of commentary on women's progress in athletics -- and on continued inequities.
Tuesday's hearing by the House Education and Labor's subcommittee on higher education was no different. Among the panelists, Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, led the charge that women still receive fewer opportunities to compete, and when given the chance are generally treated worse than their male counterparts.
That's the thesis of a report  released Tuesday by Greenberger's group, which asserts that the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, which enforces Title IX compliance, has been lax in fulfilling its obligation to review cases involving athletics.
In "Barriers To Fair Play," the center accuses OCR of narrowing the focus of its Title IX reviews, in essence shifting its concern from claims regarding equal opportunity in athletics to those regarding what it calls less substantive matters, such as whether state agencies have designated Title IX coordinators and antidiscrimination policies. The report also says OCR has put an undue burden on complainants to prove unequal treatment, and it questions why it took months and sometimes years to process and resolve some athletics claims.
"OCR isn't living up to its responsibilities as it should," Greenberger said. "And because OCR's enforcement efforts have fallen short, people are asked to shoulder the burden themselves."
Katherine McLane, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, disputed the center's claim that OCR is dragging its feet. "Ninety-five percent of all the cases that OCR undertakes are done within 180 days," she said. "OCR acts aggressively on investigating complaints and proactively works with all schools and students to ensure equal treatment for male and female athletes."
The department also notes that only a fraction of the complaints OCR receives annually involve equal opportunity in athletics, and that many more involve cases of sexual harassment or race discrimination. It says that the reviews of grievance procedures and antidiscrimination policies are to fix systemic problems.
The National Women's Law Center's report rests on the readings of 416 Title IX athletics complaints acquired through Freedom of Information Act requests with the OCR from January 2002 to December 2006. The report found that:
- Fewer than 20 percent of the claims were filed by or on behalf of college students -- the majority dealt with K-12.
- Of all the claims, challenges of athletics discrimination against women were 11 times more frequent than such challenges against men (375 of 416 overall complaints).
- Complaints filed by female athletes were more likely than those filed by males to be "meritorious enough to force schools to change their athletics programs," and more often did lead to changes.
- Female college athletes filed claims at higher rates than female high school athletes.
- Nearly 40 percent of college allegations were filed by women alleging inequitable treatment of their teams.
- Of the college complaints regarding treatment, inequitable facilities was the most commonly cited, followed in order by coach access, equipment, coach compensation and game schedules.
- Of any college sport, softball was most often cited in the college complaints -- often having to do with differences between treatment of softball and baseball teams at an institution.
- Coaches file only a small minority of complaints and say they often fear retaliation.
The center also released a survey of 1,000 adults showing that 82 percent support Title IX, while 15 percent oppose it. Twenty-two percent of people surveyed said they are aware of recent situations in which cases of unequal treatment occurred, and less than half of the entire sample said they knew what steps to take to enforce compliance with Title IX. (The center also announced Tuesday that it has started a new Web site  designed to give public information on how to hold schools and colleges accountable.)
During the House hearing, Greenberger called on Congress to provide more oversight of the OCR and support nullification of a letter released in 2005  by the Education Department that some feel eased restrictions for colleges to comply with the proportionality test of Title IX, requiring proof that the ratio of female to male athletes is similar to that of the student body.
Lawmakers Tuesday mostly agreed with Greenberger's assessment of continued inequity. Some blamed a lack of federal involvement.
In a statement, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the committee, said that "while tremendous progress has been made to root out gender discrimination and inequalities, there is still a great deal of work ahead in order to truly level the playing field between men and women. Despite the advancements that Title IX has made on behalf of all Americans, the Bush administration has shamefully worked to turn back the clock on this progress – weakening critical Title IX protections."
Added Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D.-Tex.), chair of the subcommittee: “It seems that there isn't sufficient enforcement and a mindset at the federal level to invest in efforts to close the gap."
Still, Eric Pearson, chairman of the College Sports Council, said the widening gender disparity in colleges -- with more women than men at many institutions -- is creating compliance problems, and that colleges that solely focus on the proportionality test are doing a disservice to male athletes. He added that all surveys of student interest in participation in athletics should include males.
Panelists floated the idea of a national survey of high school seniors -- different from the current department recommendation of a survey of current college students -- to gauge future interest in athletics.
"Would you support Congress mandating that DOE administer the [national] survey?" Hinojosa asked panelist Rita Simon, a professor at American University's School of Public Affairs.
"Yes," she responded.