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Saturday, June 22, 2002
Landmark law faces new challenges even now

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

Billie Jean King, blue eyes wide behind her even wider trademark glasses, punches the air in a crowded conference room at ESPN. She references the Connecticut-Oklahoma women's NCAA championship game -- the highest-rated basketball game, men's or women's, in the network's history -- and the gathered employees begin to nod and smile self-satisfied smiles.

But then the woman who has done more for women's sports in America than anyone makes an abrupt left turn. There is more do be done, much, much more, King says. It is the media's job -- responsibility, she insists -- to help create a level playing field. Executives of the Worldwide Leader in Sports shift uncomfortably in their seats. The smiles twist into grimaces.

Title IX, the law that prohibits discrimination based on gender in athletics and academics, turns 30 years old on June 23. But for King, the fight is never over.

"The 30-year legacy of Title IX is the opportunity for women to get a college education and, second, to get better at their particular skill," King says later in a private interview. "It's been a huge difference for women's teams sports, and it created an infrastructure for women to pursue their passion in sports.

"That said, there is still widespread discrimination. The only way (Title IX) compliance happens is more lawsuits and parents and children writing to their representatives and saying, 'It's not right, let's get the Office of Civil Rights involved.' "

Considering that it wasn't until 1920 that the 19th Amendment of the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote, the bare numbers are nonetheless astonishing:

  • In 1971, the year before Title IX became law, fewer than 300,000 girls participated in high school sports, about one in 27. Today, the number approaches 3 million, or approximately one in 2½.
  • The number of women participating in intercollegiate sports in that same span has gone from about 30,000 to more than 150,000. In the last 20 years alone, the number of women's college teams has nearly doubled.
  • Before Title IX, only tennis and golf had established professional tours. Today, there are also women's professional leagues for soccer, volleyball, bowling and two for basketball. Women have even made inroads in the traditionally male sport of boxing.

    That's the good news in King's the-glass-is-half-full view. Here's the bad news:

  • While women comprise approximately 54 percent of the enrollment in the 832 schools that responded to the NCAA's 1999-2000 Gender Equity Study, they account for only 41 percent of the athletes. This violates Title IX's premise that the ratio of female athletes and male athletes should be roughly equivalent to the overall proportion of female and male students.
  • According to 2000-2001 figures, men's college programs still maintain significant advantages over women's in average scholarships (60.5 percent), operating expenses (64.5 percent), recruiting expenses (68.2 percent) and head coaching salaries (59.5 percent).
  • Only 44 percent of the head coaches of women's teams are female, an all-time low that represents less than half the pre-Title IX figure.

    When Title IX of the Education Amendments, sponsored by U.S. Senator Birch Bayh and U.S. Representative Edith Green and signed by President Richard Nixon, became law the implications for athletics were not immediately obvious. Within three years, however, it had became the rallying cry for supporters of women's athletics.

    Today, after a multitude of legal skirmishes and several critical interpretations and clarifications, Title IX -- for better or worse -- has become synonymous with women's athletics. Its beauty, however, remains in the eye of the beholder. Critics say it is no more than a quota system; some privately compare it to Affirmative Action. Supporters say it has transformed the way we think about women and athletics.

    Arthur Bryant, executive director of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, has been fighting the battle in the legal trenches since 1988. In each of the 10 cases in which he has been involved the targeted school eventually has capitulated.

    "Thirty years ago our culture suffered from a stereotyping of women that seems almost laughable now," he said from his California office. "Those stereotypes still exist in aspects of society, but they are nowhere near as prevalent."

    Mariah Burton Nelson, a former Stanford basketball player and a national expert on women's athletics, concurs.

    "The implementation of Title IX has changed the way society views girls and women -- that's the part that often gets overlooked," she said. "Strength, independence and freedom -- those are the kind of things they're learning from sports. These opportunities are changing women -- and they're changing the way men and boys see women."

    The blame game
    In 1992, the Marquette University athletic department added women's soccer and, not coincidentally, stopped funding the wrestling team. And yet, for seven seasons the program stayed alive solely by alumni and booster support, as 33 wrestlers shared two or three scholarships. It might exist today if Marquette, citing gender equity requirements, hadn't pulled the plug last year.

    "It was a disappointment for all of us," said Mike End, a former Marquette wrestler. "We were happy to keep it alive as long as we did."

    End, who makes his living as a lawyer, decided not to pursue legal action. Several collegiate men's teams have filed reverse-discrimination lawsuits in recent years, but not one was successful.

    "It was not a financial issue, it was a Title IX issue," said former head wrestling coach Jim Schmitz. "The wrestling budget was sacrificed to add a women's sport, and then the team itself was sacrificed to keep everything even-Steven.

    "I can see why the Office of Civil Rights wants to protect women's opportunities, but the way they're doing it is obviously harmful to men's opportunities."

    Marquette is one of 171 college wrestling programs to be eliminated in the last 30 years. While nearly three-quarters of America's institutions, particularly the smaller and wealthier schools, increased female athletic opportunities by adding teams such as lacrosse, golf and crew, the balance did it by subtracting men's teams. The total of defunct men's programs -- after wrestling, tennis, gymnastics, golf and track have been hardest hit -- tops 400. Many blame Title IX.

    George Will, for one, called Title IX a "policy train wreck" in a Newsweek column last month:

    Will's essential argument -- and the major point advanced by leading critics -- is that women simply care less about playing sports than men. They contend that it isn't an institution's role to create demand where it doesn't exist.

    "That has been the refrain from the beginning," said Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-president of the National Women's Law Center, which has been a major player in Title IX litigation. "That women aren't as interested in playing, that it would ruin men's sports to give women equal opportunities they neither want nor, unspoken, deserve.

    "When women's (collegiate) participation went to 20 percent, people said, 'Well, that's as high as interest is going to go.' And then it went to 30 and they said the same thing. Now it's up to 40 and they're saying, 'Enough is enough.' The notion that 40 percent is enough is just as stereotypical and unfair as it was when the numbers were even lower."

    The lessons of history are clear: Colleges and universities are cutting wrestling teams not because of Title IX, but because they prefer to pour money into football and basketball.
    Marcia Greenberger, National Women's Law Center
    Greenberger said she has grown weary of hearing Title IX used as a scapegoat for cuts on the men's side.

    "Title IX doesn't say anything about schools having to cut back," she said. "The lessons of history are clear: Colleges and universities are cutting wrestling teams not because of Title IX, but because they prefer to pour money into football and basketball."

    While 400 men's teams have been eliminated, it is worth noting that even more men's teams have been added in the same span. Soccer has gained well more than 100 programs, and the big-budget sport of football has seen 39 teams born in the last decade alone. Since 1980, there have been 1½ men's programs added for every two women's programs added. The new reality, though, is caps are placed on men's rosters where demand is significantly higher.

    Marilyn McNeil, the athletics director of Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., is also the chairwoman of the NCAA committee on women's athletics. She freely admits that there are fewer women competing for college roster spots than men.

    "At our institution we've got 28 spots for baseball and, maybe, 40 guys think they can play baseball -- because they've been told that all along," McNeil said. "OK, I've got 20-25 women trying to get 22 softball spots. That's because society hasn't pushed them in the same direction. Women tend to not get involved unless they think they can contribute. We need to teach women how to play roles in sports and how to play on teams."

    Ten years ago, Kathryn Reith, wrote the Women's Sports Foundation's "Playing Fair," an influential Title IX primer. After a stint in Nike's communications department, she is pursuing her master's in communication management at Syracuse. Reith said she believes that society encourages men to think of themselves more as athletes than women.

    "One of the big socializing agents for males is sports," Reith said. "If you've never met a guy, you can always say, 'Hey what about that game in the playoffs last night?' It's something males are expected and even demanded to be interested in. If you ask a male if he was an athlete, 99 percent of the time they say yes. When you dig deeper, they may have only played JV baseball in high school -- but they'll say they were an athlete. For a woman, she generally wouldn't embrace the term unless she's varsity in college."

    Susan Hyams, a tennis player heading into her junior season at the University of Massachusetts next year, said she believes that men have more of a passion for sports. "I think the interest level is similar, but guys, they're more in love with sports. Some girls would love to play, but they don't want to make the sacrifices. For some girls, it's just not worth it."

    Intramurals, Title IX critics say, are a good barometer of actual interest. Nationally, three-quarters of the 15 million college students engage in some sort of recreational athletics, whether it's school-sponsored intramurals, recreational programs or informal activities such as jogging or pickup basketball. Of the 21 percent who described themselves as "heavy users" (once a day) in a national study, 56 percent were men. Of the 54 percent who considered themselves "light users," 57 percent were women. Some 62 percent of the "non-users" were women.

    At the University of Connecticut, 51 percent of the male undergraduates participated in the recreational services program, while the female percentage was 28 percent.

    People confuse a lack of interest with a lack of opportunity. They are very, very different. I don't know of an instance where women were given an opportunity and nobody came.
    Christine Grant, athletics director emeritus at the University of Iowa
    Reliable national statistics aren't available for elementary school-level athletic participation, but by all accounts new programs and clinics for young girls -- from soccer to lacrosse to softball -- are flourishing.

    "People confuse a lack of interest with a lack of opportunity," said Christine Grant, athletics director emeritus at the University of Iowa and a longtime Title IX advocate. "They are very, very different. I don't know of an instance where women were given an opportunity and nobody came."

    "This notion that girls don't care about playing sports," said Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. "Where are those people living?"

    Political football
    It was 1974, two years after Title IX became law, and the atmosphere in the federal offices of Health, Education and Welfare was charged, to say the least. On one side of the table were NCAA administrators and representatives of the nation's football coaches. On the other were the leaders of various women's groups. It was Venus vs. Mars, and the referees were the HEW officials. At stake: The mechanics of how Title IX would be implemented on college campuses. Lopiano, then the assistant director of athletics at Brooklyn College, was in the room.

    "The women didn't care about baseball or football," Lopiano remembered. "We just told them, 'Give us half the money, and you can spend your half any way you like.' This horrified the men."

    The men didn't like the proposed 50-50 split. Instead, they countered, how about a system of proportionality? The women, aware that 60 percent of the college students at that time were men, protested vehemently. Nevertheless, that was the proposal implemented.

    "The men wanted to legislate a permanent advantage," Lopiano said. "Well, they hurt themselves. There are a lot more women attending college now than men. And now, it's kind of like, 'Well, you set the rules, and now you want to change them again?' "

    Today women occupy 54 percent of the seats in campus lecture halls. According to the letter of Title IX law, 54 percent of the athletes should be women, too. That, however, is far from the case.

    Progress, taken in the context of our evolving society, has come relatively swiftly but never fast enough for the old campaigners. Linda Carpenter has been tracking women's college numbers for 25 years, along with fellow retired Brooklyn College colleague A. Vivian Acosta.

    "In my generation, the options for women were being a mom, a secretary, nurse or a teacher or coach," Carpenter said. "Now there are so many more possibilities. I just wish we had done a better job encouraging (coaches) ... it's a great profession. Title IX is actually one of the reasons you see fewer women in the coaching ranks -- there's so much more on the menu now."

    Where will women's athletics be 10 years from now? Twenty or 30? Lopiano sees more slow, grinding, begrudging progress.

    "What's distressing is all the information out there," she said. "The world would think that men are getting screwed. You'll see continued lawsuits of girls not getting treated fairly. You'll see foot dragging by the government, by this (George W. Bush) administration."

    Iowa's Grant is seen as a moderate in the world of women's athletics. She acknowledges the gains. She had an epiphany of sorts in 1996 at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta when the U.S. met China in the gold medal game.

    "I was lucky to get a ticket to the finals," Grant said. "You're sitting there in a full stadium, and you're struck by how proud these people were. I was overcome with the realization of how far we had come. In 1972, women in sport were frowned upon. That's a 180-degree turn."

    When McNeil arrived at Monmouth in 1994 the men's basketball team had a healthy recruiting budget, while the women had none. The men had three full-time coaches, while the women had a 10-month part-timer. The men traveled to games in a bus, and the women followed in vans. Per diems for the women were smaller, because, it was explained, they were smaller, too. That was the same reason women athletes stayed four to a room, while the men stayed two to a room. Now, the Monmouth men and the women receive equal treatment.

    "You think about it, that only took eight years to happen," McNeil said. "Connecticut women's basketball came on the scene in 1995 and transformed the game in, what, seven years. How long did it take Notre Dame to foster that kind of atmosphere for the men? It's remarkable the speed with which it's changing. I mean, we're at the beginning of the tour here."

    Rarely does a day go by that Billie Jean King isn't reminded of her Battle of the Sexes tennis victory over Bobby Riggs, which was viewed by 90 million people.

    "People tell me that for some reason they just had more self-esteem, more courage to ask for what they want and what they need and really go for it," King said. "With Title IX being passed in 1972, then me playing Bobby at the height of the women's movement, I think those are some of the good things that have come from those very chaotic, tumultuous times.

    "But we're still trying to close the gap. We're still $150 million behind every year in scholarships over the last 10 years. That makes it $1.5 billion behind, even though we had Title IX passing. What it really means is that it hasn't been enforced.

    "We can do better than that."

    Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.