Title IX levels a lot more than just the playing field.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Oct. 1 2002 4:09 PM

Hardly Sporting

Don't gut Title IX until you know what it does.

The girls' field-hockey team in Charles McGrath's town has a new hazing ritual featuring forced simulated oral sex with bananas. Rooting around for the cause of this particular element of the decline of Western civilization, McGrath—writing recently in New York Times Magazine—came up with a sure-fire suspect: Title IX. In his story, McGrath misleadingly described Title IX as "the landmark 1972 law that required universities and colleges to grant equal financing and resources to male and female athletics."

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Like almost everyone else, McGrath is wrong about Title IX, because the law isn't limited to gender equity in sports. To be sure, something approaching hysteria about the impact it would have on sports did start almost immediately after Nixon signed the law in 1972, with members of Congress getting their tightie-whities in a bunch about what would happen to football if school athletic budgets had to be shared with girls. But it wasn't until 1975 that the then-Department of Health, Education, and Welfare issued regulations clarifying that Title IX would also prohibit sex discrimination in athletics. Parity in sports was an afterthought. So, before conservatives call for Title IX's demise and liberals prepare to ward off their attacks, we need to get a grip on what the law does and doesn't do.

Title IX outlawed sex discrimination in all areas of education. The statute reads: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." In non-legalese, this means schools can't discriminate on the basis of sex in student admissions, scholarships, recruitment, courses, or any aspect of employment, as well as in providing opportunities for boys and girls to participate in sports.

Since Title IX became law in 1972, girls cannot be discouraged from taking science classes or prevented from joining the math club. Boys may sign up for cooking classes. Law schools and medical schools were forced to stop using quotas limiting the number of women students and could no longer refuse to admit women by claiming they'd get pregnant and waste their education—routine practices before the law's implementation. Title IX litigation has addressed fairness in testing and scholarships, employment discrimination against teachers, bias against pregnant students, and sexual harassment in elementary schools.

For instance: In 1989, a federal court found that the New York State Department of Education's exclusive reliance on SAT scores to award state merit scholarships—which are supposed to reward high-school performance—discriminated against girls, because the test failed to reflect girls' better grades in high school. In a 1998 case, a federal court in Kentucky ruled that dismissing pregnant students from the National Honor Society violated Title IX. In a case involving a fifth-grader, the Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that school officials who were informed of student-on-student sexual harassment and did nothing could be sued. Most famously, Title IX has also produced dramatic increases in the numbers of girls and women participating in high-school and college athletics by requiring schools to show that they meet the athletic needs of female students, that they are expanding to meet those needs, or that organized sports roughly reflect the proportions of male and female students in the school.

Title IX has thus ensured that schools are places where students of both genders can pursue courses of study, play on teams as they wish, be rewarded on an equitable basis for good scholarship, and study without being harassed by teachers or peers. All reasonable goals, it seems, but the law is nevertheless under attack.

The Bush administration is celebrating Title IX's 30th anniversary with a series of town-hall meetings, soliciting public input about how equal opportunity in athletics should be measured. The administration is responding to the claim that Title IX is a quota system that hurts boys: Critics claim it requires schools to create sports teams and fill them with girls who don't really want to play, wasting resources better spent on more interested boys.

The Bushies' focus on sports is portentous for two reasons. First, it obscures what's at stake in challenging Title IX: Sports are just a fraction of the educational programs the law has shaped. Second, focusing on sports reduces the debate about Title IX to the grossest of stereotypes about girls' and boys' natural inclinations and interests—stereotypes almost palatable when the claim is that girls are less physically aggressive, but alarming when they go further to allege that girls can't do math. Simply put, the problem with the administration's reconsideration of Title IX is that it focuses solely on the impact of the law on sports today, but it jeopardizes other Title IX programs tomorrow.

The administration can limit the debate over Title IX to sports without risking a public outcry because most Americans also believe it is limited to athletics. I've been quizzing friends and colleagues about Title IX ever since I read "Shaming Young Mothers," in which McGrath's colleague, Nicholas Kristof, also mischaracterized the law as limited to sports. In my informal poll, I found not a soul who could describe the law any more accurately than the staff of the New York Times. Perhaps as a result of its great success, we have simply forgotten how much Title IX has mattered off the athletic field.

When the topic is sports, stereotypes about girls' and boys' natural interests and inclinations abound. Critics of Title IX see uninterested women being forced onto the playing field, pushing eager young men to the sidelines. To most of us, Title IX has wrought Brandi Chastain on the plus side, but on the minus side, throngs of would-be boy gymnasts and wrestlers, who claim that Title IX has shut them out. To the degree that Title IX seems to disrupt the natural order of things—boys like frogs and snails and sports; girls like sugar and spice and well, not sports—the law seems misguided.