Title IX, women’s sports and the myth of the level playing field


    In 1975, Nebraska Sen. Roman Hruska warned a Congressional hearing that American college football was in mortal danger. The threat came from Title IX, the 1972 measure that outlawed sex discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal financial assistance.

    To comply with the law, Hrurska feared, colleges would have to equalize athletic budgets for male and female sports. And the only way to do that would be to raid the football budget. “Are we going to let Title IX kill the goose that lays the golden eggs in those colleges and universities with a major revenue-producing sport?” Hruska asked.

    He need not have worried. College football budgets have continued to skyrocket since then; at most Division I schools, 80 percent of all sports funds go to two men’s sports, football and basketball. To comply with Title IX, schools have cut other sports instead.

    Look no further than Temple University, which slashed five men’s teams last month. Part of its stated reason was to comply with Title IX. But it also eliminated two women’s teams, softball and rowing, which were allegedly too expensive for the university to sustain.

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    And Temple is hardly alone. The same week that it announced its cuts, Robert Morris—a private college near Pittsburgh—decided to slash seven varsity teams. Last year, the University of Maryland also cut seven teams; in 2006, Rutgers eliminated six.

    In each case, officials cited Title IX concerns as well as overall fiscal shortfalls. And they insisted that protecting football had nothing to do with their decisions.

    Please. At Rutgers, one of the slashed teams—men’s tennis—had a budget of $175,000, which is roughly what the football team spent on hotel rooms—for its home games. Between 1986 and 2009, the average salaries of football coaches at 44 big-time programs rose from $273,000 to over $2 million. And in 2002, 91 of 115 Division I-A colleges with football spent a larger proportion of their budgets on that one sport than on all of their women’s teams combined.

    And don’t think that football pays for the other teams, either. That was a myth perpetuated by people like Roman Hruska and Texas Sen. John Tower, who even proposed an amendment in 1974 to exempt “revenue-producing sports” from Title IX. If the law harmed “the financial base of intercollegiate sports,” Tower said, “it will have thrown the baby out with the bath water.”

    But in 1977, fewer than 1 in 5 varsity football teams made enough revenue to cover their operating expenses. Today, the National Collegiate Athletic Association says, about half of big-time programs cover their expenses. But that statistic excludes the tax-exempt bonds and tax-deductible booster donations that fund gigantic capital expenditures like the University of Alabama’s $9 million weight room or the University of Texas’ $8 million “Godzillatron,” a 134-foot-wide high-definition video screen.

    Contrary to what you might have heard about Title IX, nothing in the law requires schools to spend the same amount of money on male and female teams. Nor does it mandate an equal number of male and female athletes. Instead, it requires schools to take measures to make male and female participation on sports teams proportional to their overall representation in the student body.

    That’s what athletic departments wanted back in 1972, when men earned 56 percent of bachelor’s degrees. By 2000, though, these numbers were almost exactly reversed: 57 percent of BA’s went to women. So athletic departments created new women’s teams in sports like rowing, which enlisted large rosters and didn’t require athletes to have extensive high school experience.

    That adds a bitter irony to Temple’s decision to cut its own women’s rowing team, which had 100 members at one point last year. Meanwhile, school officials are contemplating construction of an on-campus football stadium. How many other sports teams will be sacrificed to pay for that?

    And if they’re male teams, Title IX will surely take the blame. That’s been the strategy of our colleges and universities from day one: keep spending on football (and the second most expensive sport, basketball), then pit smaller men’s sports against women’s teams. It’s a cynical divide-and-conquer ploy, but it has worked so far.

    As Title IX enters its fifth decade, however, we should be celebrating it instead of blaming it. In 1971, before the law was passed,15 percent of college athletes were women; by 2012, 43 percent of them were. Girls also made up 44 percent of high school athletes, up from 7 percent thirty years earlier.

    Or consider this: in 1969, three years before Title IX, Syracuse, New York budgeted $90,000 for boys’ sports, and $200–yes, $200–for girls. The following year, when the school board decided to cut the athletic budget, it trimmed the boys’ allocation to $87,000, and simply eliminated the tiny budget for girls. Before Title IX, New Brunswick Senior High School gave $25,576 to boys’ sports and $2,250 to girls. And in the Fairfield school district in south-central Pennsylvania, boys received $19,880 for sports and girls got $460. Again, you read that correctly: $460.

    To be sure, women’s participation in college sports, especially, still lags behind their overall proportion of the undergraduate student population. And so does the amount of money allocated to women athletes, who receive about one-third of total university athletic expenditures. But we’ve obviously come a very long way since 1972.

    So if you’re female and played a sport in high school or college—or if your daughter or grand-daughter did—thank Title IX. And don’t blame the law for our current fiscal woes, either. The biggest inequality in college sports is no longer between men and women. It’s between football and everyone else.



    Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

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