Poor Sportsmanship: Colleges Work the System to Cheat Women Out of Meaningful Opportunities

April 28, 2011
Guest Post

By Neena Chaudhry, Senior Counsel, National Women’s Law Center

On Monday, The New York Times released a poll, in conjunction with CBS News, showing that nearly half of Americans who are familiar with Title IX believe it needs stricter enforcement.

The survey was conducted last month, but it would have been very interesting to see what the results would have been if respondents had first read the other New York Times Title IX piece that ran the same day: “College Teams, Relying on Deception, Undermine Gender Equity.” The article goes on to describe how athletic programs across the country manipulate their athletic rosters to artificially boost women’s participation numbers in order to claim compliance. 

Title IX requires that schools receiving federal funds not discriminate on the basis of sex, including in sports.  Most Americans think it’s been doing a good job.  In the same Times/CBS poll, 78 percent of people familiar with Title IX said they believe it’s been a positive force for women’s opportunities in sports.

It’s easy to see why. Since Title IX’s passage in 1972, women’s participation in collegiate athletics has increased to nearly six times the pre-Title IX rate. Multiple generations of girls have grown up shooting hoops and scoring goals, going on to earn college scholarships and represent their schools in competition.  

Despite this progress, women still lack access to equal opportunities.  According to the NCAA, women in Division I colleges, while representing 53 percent of the student body, receive only 45 percent of the participation opportunities, 34 percent of the total money spent on athletics, 45 percent of the total athletic scholarship dollars, and 32 percent of recruiting dollars.

These inequities are only exacerbated by the manipulative “roster management” practices described in the recent Times’ piece.  Examples range from particularly egregious instances of deliberate deception (at one university, a student who quit running and returned her scholarship was left on the roster of three different teams, none of which she was participating on), to more common policies (many schools allow high numbers of “walk-ons” on women’s teams).  These practices reflect a pattern whereby schools superficially pad female participation numbers in order to avoid expending the resources necessary to create the same level of opportunities for women as for men.  These tactics are not only illegal, but they are contrary to the mission and spirit of Title IX

While the law allows athletic programs flexibility in determining how to comply with the requirement to provide equal participation opportunities, common sense indicates that some examples of roster management don’t qualify.  If a student with little experience in a sport is allowed to “walk-on” to the team, but not required to go to practice, her experience as a team member and an athlete is obviously not comparable to that of a varsity competitor who works with the coach and the team on a daily basis.  If schools are serious about achieving gender equity, they need to work with their students to create meaningful opportunities for women that are consistent with the level of opportunities enjoyed by men.

But schools openly claim that they are unable to pursue gender equity due to a lack of resources and that roster management is an alternative to cutting men’s teams.  Upon closer examination, however, what emerges is that schools often use Title IX as a scapegoat to cover prioritization of certain teams over others.  For example, the University of Delaware recently announced the “reclassification” of its men’s cross-country and outdoor track and field varsity teams to club status.  The University claims that its decision was based on the need to comply with Title IX, explaining that, given its bloated football roster, it isn't compliant under the proportionality standard, and it lacks the funds to create more women’s teams. Yet only months before announcing the reclassification of the men’s running program, the University of Delaware announced plans to renovate their football stadium, adding an additional 8,200 seats, including 17 luxury suites.  Another costly project, to be completed in the next year, will build new locker rooms for the football team. 

The myth that Title IX is responsible for limiting men’s opportunities has gone on long enough.  Title IX never requires schools to cut sports. It is a flexible law that allows schools to comply in one of three different ways, one of which is to show that they are making progress towards equity.  And while Title IX opponents claim that the law is all about proportionality, less than one-third of schools actually comply using that prong

Title IX is meant to ensure that schools are held accountable for providing equal treatment to women and men.  Nearly forty years after the passage of Title IX, schools should do better than providing women with illusory opportunities.