Distributed October 1995
Copyright ©1995 by David Roach
Here's what you'll learn: On any college campus, some portion of the student body -- men and women -- will have absolutely no interest in varsity sports. They may never have set foot inside a stadium or arena. They may not care whether the school even has a gymnasium. Varsity athletics had nothing to do with their decision to attend this particular school.
Fine. No problem with that. But here's an interesting question: Should the law require that college or university to budget scarce financial resources so that those men and women may have intercollegiate varsity opportunities they neither need nor want?
A no-brainer? Hardly. But that, in effect, is exactly what a federal judge has decided Brown University must do. If his ruling holds up on appeal, every college will face the same question.
Nearly 25 years after Congress passed its landmark Title IX legislation to end gender-based discrimination in higher education, we have arrived at a truly absurd state of affairs. It no longer matters whether a college gives men and women absolutely equal opportunities to play varsity sports. Equal opportunity is not what the compliance test measures. Instead, the test determines whether the college can manipulate its athletic program so that men and women appear to participate in equal numbers regardless of their interest and ability to participate.
In fact -- and here's where things get almost too absurd -- if a school has equal numbers of men and women in its student body and gives all interested male and female athletes a scrupulously equal chance at participating on varsity teams, that school will almost certainly fail the government's Title IX compliance test.
You will learn something else from your pollster: The subset of students who have the interest and ability to play intercollegiate sports will be approximately 60 percent male. That difference in the relative levels of interest and ability between men and women -- and the question whether those interests should be respected -- lies at the heart of the whole Title IX mess. That issue almost defies rational discussion, and most comments are heavily qualified. Yes, men are more interested in athletics, but that's because women are socialized away from competitive sports. Yes, men do show greater interest in athletics, but that's because schools have discriminated against women. Yes, men are more likely than women to stay on a team even if they sit on the bench, but that's because ...
The point is that for whatever reason, men do display greater athletic interest. Any athletic director will tell you that. Next spring, I could easily have 50 men trying to play baseball, while the women's softball team will have positions vacant. Next winter, I will have enough interested men to fill three varsity basketball rosters. Eight times as many men as women come out for intramural teams. Three times as many men play club sports.
That's why so many college athletic departments are struggling now. A program that is truly non-discriminatory, that assures all athletes an equal chance to participate, would attract six men for every four women. But remember, the existing interpretation of Title IX does not consider whether athletic opportunity is extended equally without regard to gender; it only looks to see whether the gender ratio among athletes mirrors the gender ratio among students generally, irrespective of interest.
What is a college to do? Almost all of Brown's 17 women's teams have room for additional athletes. Meanwhile, all of the 16 men's teams have a superabundance of players competing for available positions. It would be a fool's errand for any college to require that women be as interested in competition as men; the desire to compete is not a matter of decree. The court's answer to the unfilled roster dilemma is to require Brown to add more sports for women in hopes that additional undersubscribed teams will bring the numbers up.
Regrettably, most colleges are trying to hit their numerical targets by capping or eliminating men's sports. No athletic director in his or her right mind is considering even one new team for men.
Why? Because Title IX has been hijacked, diverted from its original purpose of eliminating gender-based discrimination and fashioned into a handy weapon to enforce a de facto quota system. Fairness is no longer a matter of treating the athletic interests of male and female students equitably. Brown and other universities have tried that.
We're all heading down the wrong track now, driven by an official and desperately wrong idea of what fairness is and how it should be measured. Forget the high-minded rationale for having sports in higher education -- all those benefits of developing teamwork, leadership, self-confidence, habits of hard work. That was tossed out the window a few miles back. We're now in the business of telling eager, willing athletes to stay in their dorms so they won't screw up the numbers.
No one knows for sure where this wrong track will take us, but we'll probably recognize the place when we get there: The numbers will be equal; a policy of gender-based discrimination will have the force of law; and almost no one will be happy.