Gender equity debate won’t end, but can it change?

Gender equity has become one of those topics about which it’s nearly impossible to have a rational discussion.

If you see the last discussion I had on this topic, you can get a sense of my frustration. Legitimate points are there to be made — sports programs are getting cut, and while Title IX may sometimes be a convenient scapegoat, it’s hard to ignore that complying with Title IX can be messy or even counterproductive.

The examples I always use are Georgia Tech and North Carolina. The latter could easily be a victim of its success if it were ever seriously pressed to meet “Prong 1” of the Title IX test, proportionality (tying athletic opportunities to the gender ratio of the student body). In reading The Man Watching, the biography of Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance, you can trace Chapel Hill’s history from an overwhelmingly male student body to a 60-40 female ratio as, only partly coincidentally, it gets serious about women’s sports. Georgia Tech is still puttering along with a 64% male student body. Guess who has no trouble meeting the proportionality prong. Why use this law, which was supposed to be about educational opportunities and not just sports, to make things difficult on the university that has become a haven, if not heaven, for female students and student-athletes while not using it to encourage more women to go to schools like Georgia Tech?

But that’s not where the lines have been drawn in this debate. For a few years, the debate was over a survey that would be used to gauge students’ interests in sports. The Women’s Sports Foundation raised several valid objections — most notably that the survey was limited to existing students.

The survey was a flawed attempt to solve a legitimate need — clarifying “Prong 3” of the Title IX “three-prong test.” The test is supposed to safeguard against using strict proportionality to bring about Title IX complaints, though it doesn’t address a situation like Georgia Tech. Schools can demonstrate a history of adding women’s sports (Prong 2, which should help North Carolina) or demonstrate that they’ve met the interests and demands of the underrepresented gender (Prong 3).

What we’re seeing now is a retreat to “Prong 1” — proportionality, the most difficult way for a well-intentioned school with a lot of female students to comply with Title IX. And it’s curious. Liberty University, in announcing that its wrestling program would lose varsity status, said this: “The University has a legal obligation to comply with federal law relating to gender equity. Although the law allows for three methods to meet its requirements, the University has chosen proportionality as its preferred method.”

I had a good Twitter discussion about this with @USAWrestling, which agrees that Liberty could’ve complied with Title IX by using “Prong 2” — history of adding women’s sports. So was Liberty simply using Title IX as an excuse for cutting wrestling, or was it not confident in defending its record on Prong 2?

There’s a hint in this column: “When it comes to litigation, though, part one is the only one that stands up in court. … After the precedent-setting 1995 gender-discrimination case of Cohen v. Brown University, proportionality became the safe harbor for compliance.” Basically, Brown tried to defend itself on Prongs 2 and 3 and failed, and that cast a pall over two-thirds of the three-prong test.

And so before I go further — I came across that column through one of USAWrestling’s Tweets, and I was expecting something a little more in-depth than what I saw. I then made a snarky comment on Twitter. I regret that Tweet, I apologize to the author, and I understand now that the column is suited for the purpose for which it was written (a summary for Congressional Quarterly). I’d emphatically say that I did not intend to discredit anyone with an ad hominem argument.

I’m not interested in using “tactics” to discredit people. I’m interested in moving the discussion forward. My Tweet didn’t help in that regard. I hope this post will.

I don’t have enough of a legal background to say whether Prongs 2 and 3 got the best defense they could’ve received in the Brown case (a strange test case, considering the Ivy League doesn’t offer “athletic” scholarships). This paper seems to think Prongs 2 and 3 may yet have life, but the author seems more intent on ditching the test entirely.

And with good reason. As strange as it seems for a Duke grad to put so much emphasis on North Carolina, it stands to reason — if North Carolina, with all its success in women’s sports, could theoretically be out of compliance with Title IX, the law is wrong.

The elephant in the room, of course, is football. That’s scores of scholarships at Division I schools, and there’s no equivalent women’s sport. Football is costly — often not directly profitable — but it’s still a driving force behind much of campus life. To give just one example — a marching band is just as much of an “educational opportunity” as a soccer team, and if there’s no football team, the band has fewer places to play. Let’s not pretend that marching at halftime of a field hockey game is the same thing.

The Women’s Sport Foundation’s suggestions for sharing revenue and resources are only partially helpful. Yes, the football team could save a little money here and there, and I could easily go on another rant about how bowl games can actually lose money for schools. But telling an athletic director to “raise more revenue,” and the AD will surely say, “Gee why didn’t I think of that?”

I haven’t spoken much with the Women’s Sports Foundation — I had a brief conversation with a prominent Title IX advocate this week, but we discussed very little substantive. The College Sports Council has been badgering me to “talk” with them, to which I’d wonder what all the blog comments and Tweets have been. And as you can see, I’ve found discussions with them to be incredibly frustrating, particularly when they tie Title IX to the U.S. men’s national soccer team, then deny that they’ve done so and say I’m “willfully mischaracterizing” their position. It’s especially frustrating when one of the people at the Council is a very good guy in real life and one of the founding fathers of legitimate sports blogging. (That is — actually blogging about sports rather than being a Deadspin-style snarkfest.)

So to the author I offended on Twitter — again, I mean no personal offense. I know and like the only colleague of yours that I’ve met. I just find the Council to be frustrating — and, looking around at the current landscape, ineffective.

I can’t claim to have a big solution. But I’m going to suggest a couple of things that should be recognized in the interest of moving forward:

1. Recognize that there are, in fact, single-gender sports. That’s football, and for now, that’s wrestling. Yes, women’s wrestling is in the Olympics, as it should be. But as I learned from @USAWrestling yesterday, it’s not getting the status it needs from the NCAA to be added at most schools. Until that changes, wrestling should get a bit of leeway in athletic department budgets because there’s simply no women’s equivalent.

2. That said, don’t give football a free pass. If your starting goalkeeper can make do with a partial scholarship, so can your third-string tight end. And quit spending like an NFL team on road trips.

3. Why not set a minimum standard rather than equity standard? Perhaps a fourth prong of the Title IX test, really a modification of Prongs 2 and 3, could be that any school that funds a certain number of women’s sports to a certain degree has met the test. If you’ve got fully funded women’s basketball, field hockey, golf, lacrosse, soccer, softball, tennis and volleyball, do you really have to add women’s-only rowing and equestrian just for equity’s sake? Or cut a men’s program for fear of following Brown as a loser in court?

If I have a bias in all this, it’s as a fan of soccer and Olympic sports. They’re threatened — across the board. Women’s basketball has grown by leaps and bounds — at Duke, I attended games that drew a couple hundred fans; today, they draw several thousand. Great. Let’s invest elsewhere.

And let’s figure out how to do it without all the rhetoric and canned arguments. You may say I’m a dreamer, but … well, John Lennon wrote the rest.

5 Comments

  1. Actually, I think we need to drop some of the prongs. Either the ‘proportionality’ prong or the meeting the wishes prong both require schools to discriminate against men except in the unlikely cases that interest is even between the genders or the school has enough money to support any and all teams for both genders.

    If it was up to me, I’d like to see two prongs. First, that the number of athletes mirror the interest level, either by survey or by mirroring intermurals etc, For this prong, chances are it won’t be exactly even, so I do think girls should get the larger cushion. Another way of putting this is each person, regardless of gender should have about the same chance of making a team. Since it would be all but impossible to have the same chance, the girls deserve a slight better chance. The second prong would be to continue to get that point. Now, I think there should be a 3 year window to eliminate teams. That means you don’t have an AD showing up during in April to announce the end of a spring team.

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