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."

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.

A more accurate understanding of Title IX's aims and impact would look beyond sports to the huge increases in the numbers of women lawyers, doctors, executives, engineers, and scientists in our midst. To be sure, Title IX codified social change: Women were already making their way onto college campuses and into graduate schools before the law was passed. But it is indisputable that Title IX had an immediate and massive impact on the gender contours of higher education. And lest you believe that the need for the law has passed, it bears noting that in 2000, the Department of Education received 396 complaints of sex discrimination alleging a violation of Title IX—but only 21 of these complaints alleged discrimination in intercollegiate athletics. Without Title IX, these wrongs would be much harder to remedy.

In the two town-hall meetings held thus far—in Atlanta and Chicago—Title IX has been both celebrated and criticized. The celebration is strange, given that the agenda of the meetings is to cast doubt upon the law. But everyone, especially male coaches, insists that women's increased participation in athletics is the greatest thing since the invention of the jockstrap. In Atlanta, Grant Teaff, the former head football coach at Baylor, declared Title IX "outstanding legislation."

Except, Teaff and other critics go on to say, for the fact that it's a quota system, focused on outcomes and not opportunities. Perhaps not surprisingly, women lawyers and coaches who defend Title IX—pointing to NCAA statistics showing how much less female coaches earn, and how much more is spent on recruitment and scholarships for male athletes—are promptly called quota queens.

Quota is a dirty word in American politics, and no one wants to have to fend off the charge that they're for them. But the issue here is really whose quota system is being challenged. Any numeric reference point refers to a quota. So, when a football coach argues that he should be able to field a team of 95 (male) players, he's also seeking a quota. Before Title IX, quotas were routinely used to limit, not expand, opportunities for women. So after Title IX, it's perhaps inevitable that whenever slots on men's teams are "lost," someone cries "quota."

In the town-hall meetings, it's also clear that the argument won't end with the issue of quotas on the playing field. Challenges to Title IX's implementation in both athletics and academics have been mounted for years by the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative organization that has the ear of the administration and a prominent role in today's Title IX debates. In June, IWF affiliate Jessica Gavora warned of "quota creep" from sports to other areas of education. Gavora—who advises and writes speeches for Attorney General John Ashcroft (and who's also the daughter-in-law of anti-Clinton attack-dog Lucianne Goldberg)—claims it is wrong to suggest that both sexes are "equally interested in and capable of playing lacrosse, excelling in physics, becoming electrical engineers or scoring 1600 on the SAT." Similarly, in the town-hall meeting in Atlanta, Gavora's IWF colleague Christine Stolba sounded an alarm about "quotas in every arena of higher education, including the classroom."

But again, there are quotas and there are quotas. Apparently statistical arguments about gender equity on campus are entirely palatable when the claim is that men and not women are at risk. Without a glimmer of worry about self-coronating as a quota queen, Stolba ominously remarked that "the underrepresented sex on campus will no longer be women, but men." One wonders: Does she think dismantling Title IX would get more boys to stay in school? And what if the lower numbers of boys on campus simply manifest boys' natural distaste for learning? Then shouldn't we let nature take its course?

Participating in sports may build character (the prevalence of banana fellatio notwithstanding), but participating in higher education builds life-chances off the playing field. Americans who get more years of schooling get more of everything else too: They make more money, stay healthier, and vote more. When women receive more education, it offsets the fact that their pay still lags behind men's. Since Title IX became law, women have made great strides off, as well as on, the playing field. To scale it back now would be … bananas.

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