Wrestling with Title IX

For more than 30 years, Title IX of the Education Amendments has been heralded as the reason for the increase in the number of women’s athletic programs across the country and providing opportunities for women like Mia Hamm to compete on the college level.

While Title IX has provided more opportunities in athletics for women, it has done the opposite for men. A federal guideline intended to prevent discrimination among the sexes in education has done just the opposite in college athletics. Title IX requirements have been used to cut athletic opportunities for men, while at the same time increasing opportunities for women.

It has all been done because of proportionality – one aspect of a three-pronged test used by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to determine if a school is in compliance with Title IX regulations. The proportionality requirement states that a school’s ratio among male and female athletes must be similar to the ratio of male and female enrollment. For the other two prongs, a school may either demonstrate it has a “history and continuing practice” of expanding athletic programs to women or show that it has “fully and effectively” met the athletic interests and abilities of women. A school only has to satisfy one of three prongs to be considered in compliance.

The problem is, as Gerald Reynolds, assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote in 2003 in a “Further Clarification” of the OCR’s Title IX enforcement, the OCR let it be known it favored the “substantially proportionate” test as the only “safe harbor” standard to meet to avoid further OCR scrutiny.

Eric Pearson, executive director of the College Sports Council and Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, have seen firsthand how college administrators used the proportionality test to cut men’s teams, such as track and field and wrestling.

The College Sports Council recently filed suit against the Government Accountability Office for what it believes were inaccuracies in a 2001 GAO report on Title IX. The lawsuit alleges that the report did not correctly account for decreases in men’s teams.

NCAA statistics show that men’s cross country leads the list of most dropped programs in the last 15 years at 183. Indoor track (180), golf (178), tennis (171), rowing (132), outdoor track (126), swimming (125) and wrestling (121) are other men’s programs that have been cut mainly because of current Title IX enforcement, Pearson said.

“We do support Title IX,” Pearson said. “We think there is good reason to keep Title IX. It can continue to protect women. We want to change it so that it doesn’t harm men. Proportionality doesn’t help women.”

Pearson said in some cases men and women athletes train together. When a male sport is cut due to proportionality, the women’s program that compliments the cut program is left without the training assistance.

“I’ve talked to women’s coaches and asked them what is important to them,” Pearson said. “What they care about is fair access to facilities and equivalent funding for their teams, travel budgets and recruiting budgets. “… In general, especially the women’s sports that have a male equivalent, they want to see some reasonable reform.”

Of the male sports that have been cut due to proportionality, it is wrestling that has received the largest attention. Pearson said that is because wrestlers and the wrestling community are the most organized. The NWCA has sued the Department of Education over Title IX enforcement, a case that is on appeal to the Supreme Court after lower courts dismissed the case saying the NWCA does not have standing.

Moyer says he understands proportionality is not the lone reason for the decline in wrestling program over the years, but it is a large factor. Though 19 wrestling programs have been added in the past five years, some schools will not add the sport because of large football rosters, Moyer said.

“As long as this quota system is in place, it’s a tall order,” Moyer said.

Marquette University, Moyer said, is the poster child for what he believes is wrong with Title IX implementation. The wrestling program was self-supporting for seven years, while the school would pay for incidental costs. The program was cut because Marquette did not meet the required quota.

“How did that decision benefit women?” Moyer asked. “It does everything that Title IX is supposed to prevent.”

In his 2003 “Clarification,” Reynolds wrote, “OCR hereby clarifies that nothing in Title IX requires the cutting or reduction of teams in order to demonstrate compliance with Title IX, and that the elimination of teams is a disfavored practice.”

For now, Pearson and Moyer said they will continue to fight for Title IX reform, the end of the proportionality requirement, and equal access for both genders.

“Our ultimate goal is to find a more faithful interpretation that helps women without hurting men,” Moyer said.

Shannon Blosser (sblosser@popecenter.org) is a staff writer for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Chapel Hill.