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The War on Football

Some feminists say it's killing off less popular men's sports on college campuses. But the real culprit is Title IX.

June 16, 2002|JESSICA GAVORA | Jessica Gavora is the author of "Tilting the Playing Field: Schools, Sports, Sex and Title IX."

WASHINGTON — Today, 30 years after Title IX outlawed sex discrimination in education, the number of men's college sports teams done in by "gender equity" is depressingly large. A few recent sacrifices: Howard University, with a 60% female student body but "only" a 30% female roster of athletes, recently killed baseball and wrestling. Bucknell dropped wrestling and men's crew. Bowling Green State University eliminated men's swimming, men's tennis and men's track and field. The University of Vermont, Tulane and Bowling Green all eliminated men's track but kept women's. The Universities of Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas eliminated their male swimmers and divers but continue to fund the women with whom the men used to share facilities and road trips.

Unquestionably, women have achieved much in the 30 years Title IX has been on the books. Once unwelcome interlopers, girls and women now make up just under 40% of high school and college athletes. And although Title IX surely played a role in this progress for women, the sacrifice of men's teams to fill a federally imposed gender quota has been the law's most obvious accomplishment.As a result, pro-quota women's activists are desperately looking for ways to change the subject. Their latest tactic is to return to an old grudge most of us thought the women's movement had left behind decades ago: the war on football.

"It's not Title IX's fault, it's chicken college presidents and athletic directors who won't bite the bullet on the irresponsible spending of their football programs," Women's Sports Foundation Executive Director Donna Lopiano said recently of cuts to men's programs.

The logic--such as it is--of sports-gender bean counters like Lopiano holds that football, for schools that have it, is the fat man tipping the canoe of gender equity in college sports. With rosters approaching 100 players and scholarship limits three and four times higher than other sports, football programs make Title IX's mandate of reaching "proportionality" much more difficult. Schools struggling to match female athletic participation with female enrollment find they have to have four or five women's teams just to "make up" for the numbers that football adds to the male side of the athletic ledger. Many schools offer the maximum number of scholarships in each sport played by women in their conference and still can't match the number of men who turn out--many of whom never even get a chance to play--on the gridiron each Sunday.

Big-time college football may be complacent and uncaring, but is it responsible for losses in men's collegiate athletics? Most participants in men's minor sports don't think so. They understand that the phenomenon that wins the multimillion-dollar television contracts and fills the stands every Sunday at Notre Dame, Michigan, North Carolina and Nebraska also pays the bills for nonrevenue-generating men's--and women's--teams. The National Collegiate Athletic Assn. reports that the average Division I-A football program cleared $3.8 million in profit after expenses in 1999. Women's sports teams at the same schools, meanwhile, lost an average of $2.3 million per school.

Not all football programs make money, but those that do are the most successful in creating what Title IX activists claim they want: more athletic opportunities for women. Colleges and universities that belong to conferences with big-time football and basketball television contracts and bowl games--powerhouses like Iowa, Minnesota and Florida--field the largest and most diverse women's sports programs. Schools with less-successful men's programs have fewer female athletes relative to male athletes.

Meanwhile, Title IX's reverberations are being felt everywhere. Marquette University eliminated its wrestling team this year, something officials there say they did to comply with the law's mandate that the percentages of women and men who play athletics match the percentages of women and men in the student body. The blame-football-first crowd can't pin this one on its usual scapegoat: Marquette has no football team.

Caught between higher education's love of football's money-making potential and its loathing of the wrath of the women's lobby are men's so-called "nonrevenue" sports. Less popular sports like wrestling, men's gymnastics, track and swimming are hemorrhaging teams under Title IX. Their losses have been so great--the number of collegiate wrestling programs has been cut in half--that organizations representing coaches from wrestling, gymnastics, track and field and swimming have joined in a lawsuit against the Department of Education challenging the current interpretation of Title IX. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington earlier this year argues that Title IX quotas are discriminatory against men.

Meanwhile, the big guys--football and men's basketball--have stayed on the sidelines, surveying the carnage and cynically calculating that Title IX cuts will never affect them.

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