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De Varona Toils to Protect Title IX

Former Olympian is member of commission reviewing the law that mandates gender equity for athletes in schools.

January 12, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

The request was coming from the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer delivering the phone call. Donna de Varona accepted the offer, although she knew there was a better way to serve her country.

"You're caught between a rock and a hard place," De Varona said.

She is part of the commission formed by U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige that is reviewing Title IX 30 years after its creation. Speculation is that the review will mean a weakening of Title IX. De Varona, among the nation's strongest advocates of the federal law requiring colleges and high schools to maintain equitable treatment of male and female athletes, knows this. She also knew she had no choice but to become part of it.

The 15-member panel, led by Stanford Athletic Director Ted Leland and former WNBA star Cynthia Cooper, will gather Jan. 29-30 in Washington for a final discussion of its findings. Its final report to Paige is due Feb. 28.

"We need more time and input," De Varona said. "It's a big subject. We need more time to decide how to structure our report, sorting out opinions from legal findings and legal findings from statistics. If this is fact finding, that's one thing. If it's more than that, that's another. What we need is a solution panel to continue the dialogue. A Band-Aid is not going to solve this issue."

That type of candor and resolve will bring De Varona to the NCAA convention in Anaheim today, when she will join John Wooden, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jesse Owens and Ronald Reagan as a winner of the NCAA's Theodore Roosevelt Award. The award is given annually to a former college athlete "who has exemplified the ideals and purposes of college athletics by demonstrating a continuing interest and concern for physical fitness and sport."

"It's an extraordinary moment for me considering when I entered UCLA [in the 1960s], there were no sports offered for women," De Varona said.

De Varona, a two-time gold medal swimmer in the 1964 Olympics who also competed in the 1960 Games as a 13-year-old, said her passion for defending women's and Olympic sports is drawn from perspective.

"I grew up in an era when my Olympic medal didn't have the same value as it did if it were on a man," De Varona said. "We have had to fight for our protections, and we still do."

Since leaving UCLA, De Varona has helped organize the Women's Sports Foundation and won a 1991 Emmy while producing a feature story for ABC Sports.

Her stances have been strong. She filed a $50-million lawsuit against ABC in 2000, claiming she was fired because of her age and gender. She settled in October, and was rehired for on-air and behind-the-scenes work, including a role in increasing Olympic sports programming.

"I've paid a price for some things I've said," De Varona said. "I've learned how to handle those things."

In a presentation Saturday, Judith Sweet, an NCAA vice president, produced data showing that a worst-case tweaking of the proportionality prong of Title IX -- which requires the percentage of women in the student body to be comparable to the percentage of women athletes -- could result in up to 78,000 fewer college women athletes and $188 million in lost scholarships to women.

"Donna has been one of the most articulate advocates for not weakening Title IX in any way," Leland said. "She has compassion and provides great balance in our commission. Donna has given impassioned, emotional speeches, which are good for our overall cause."

As a member of the commission, De Varona has repeatedly said that Title IX is a good law, that universities need to be more informed about compliance, and that women's sports need to be better promoted without making them a target if men's sports are reduced.

"Seeing so many girls' lives fulfilled all these years since Title IX, watching so many of them find and develop their passion through sports -- we need to continue to do that," De Varona said. "That's what makes this country great."

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