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Tilting the Playing FieldSchools, Sports, Sex and Title IX
By Jessica Gavora
ENCOUNTER BOOKSCopyright © 2002 Jessica Gavora
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Numbers Game
Intent, as history shows, is a poor bulwark against despotism.
When the U.S. team kicked its way to a spectacular victory over China in the Women's World Cup soccer final in the summer of 1999, the win was hailed as not just a triumph for women's soccer, but a triumph for women. Cynthia McFadden of ABC News proclaimed Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and the other members of the U.S. team "the heiresses of the women's movement." Newsweek's Jonathan Alter announced a new era for women. In the women's soccer team, he gushed, feminism had "a new comfortable place" to reside. USA Today looked forward hopefully to the election of "President Chastain" in 2016, and then to 2055 as "the year college football was eliminated due to lack of interest."
The U.S. women's soccer team was indeed a sensation in the summer of 1999, drawing the kind of audiences and endorsement deals normally reserved for men's professional sports figures. It didn't hurt that they were winning, of course. Nor did it hurt that they were all attractive young women, an image cultivated by Chastain posing semi-nude in the pages of the men's magazine Gear.
But it was, from the beginning, more than a sports story. Politicians and media commentators couldn't talk about the women's soccer team that summer without also talking about politics. The Denver Post dubbed the U.S. women's success "the revenge of the soccer moms." Former Colorado congresswoman Pat Schroeder said the American lady booters had "provided little girls with a picture of the millennium woman-a woman who is self-confident and capable of excelling in anything she chooses to do." The connection between women's soccer and women's rights became so fixed in the media that a year later the Washington Post sought to gauge the status of women in Brazil by the popularity-or lack thereof-of the Brazilian women's soccer team. "The attitude here toward women's soccer may concern only a game, but it is emblematic of a broader problem for Brazil, and for many other countries emerging from poverty," the Post reported. "What Brazil and many other developing countries are finding is that laws, progressive policies ... have failed to uproot the enduring traditions that constitute the biggest obstacle to women's economic progress."
Back in the USA, in contrast, the quickly congealing conventional wisdom was that a "progressive public policy" had not only made life better for women but also made women better at sports. The new stage in the women's movement symbolized by the U.S. women's soccer team, Americans were told, was brought about by a law: Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
Sensing a photo opportunity, politicians of all kinds moved quickly to associate themselves with the act of legislation that brought us the camera-ready "girls of summer." President Bill Clinton hosted the U.S. women's soccer team at the White House and thanked Title IX for giving "millions and millions and millions of girls" the message "that they can follow their dreams." Jesse Jackson affirmed the connection between gender and race and legislatively mandated opportunity: "Without Title IX and without affirmative action, those women would not have been on the field," he declared. And when Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives tried to push through a resolution congratulating the women's soccer team without including the obligatory obeisance to Title IX, Democrats cried foul. "They are simply in a state of denial with regards to the national government's role," said Representative Bruce Vento, a Minnesota Democrat. "They can deny that Title IX didn't play a role [sic], but the fact is that it did. Only Republicans could screw up an international championship."
The World Cup couldn't have come at a better time. In the summer of 1999, the American women's movement was desperate for some good news. Membership in women's groups like the National Organization for Women was dwindling, while both men and women (to NOW's shock and horror) were flocking to the Promise Keepers, a male-centered movement that advocated a return to traditional roles for husband and wife. Even worse, feminists had just endured a thirteen-month impeachment ordeal in which they stood largely silent as a president they supported stood accused of sexual harassment and rape.
The American women's big win over the Chinese team in the summer of 1999 was a chance to reverse the dismal decline of feminista. Women's groups began a media campaign to graft the success of women's soccer onto their political agenda, and journalists and commentators unquestioningly repeated their mantra: The "girls of summer" were actually the "daughters of Title IX," as Time called them. So complete was the identification between the team and the law, USA Today concluded, that Title IX was now "one of the most untouchable laws in the land." The Washington Post's Ann Gerhart even called Brandi Chastain's black sports bra-unveiled in a dramatic act of product placement in the seconds following the World Cup victory-"the cloth symbol of Title IX's success." Hamm, Chastain et al. appeared simultaneously on the covers of Time, Newsweek, People and Sports Illustrated-the new faces of confident, successful American women and the new symbols of the triumph of Title IX.
But Title IX had other faces as well, also on display in the summer of 1999, although not on the nation's front pages:
Boston, Massachusetts: As she had done to all male students for twenty-five years, self-proclaimed "radical feminist" philosophy professor Mary Daly denied sophomore Duane Naquin admission to her feminist ethics course at Boston College in the fall of 1999 on the grounds that he was a threat to the "safe, nurturing educational space" for women that her sex-segregated classroom provided. Naquin threatened to sue Boston College for discriminating against him on the basis of his sex. Barring him from Daly's class, he and his attorneys charged, was forbidden under Title IX.
But now Daly was suing back. Ironically, the basis of her complaint, too, was Title IX. And not just Title IX, according to her attorney, Gretchen Van Ness, but "the cutting edge of Title IX." Said Van Ness, "There's nothing that says what she's been doing is per se against the law. In fact, Title IX has said that when you are making up for past discrimination and have a pedagogical reason for what you're doing, it might be permissible."
Dayton, Ohio: Nate Studney was a junior on the wrestling team at Miami University of Ohio when news came that the 1998 season would be the team's last. Citing a budget deficit and pressure under Title IX to achieve "gender equity" in its sports program, the university announced that it was killing men's soccer, tennis and wrestling, effective June 1. No woman at Miami had claimed she was discriminated against. No women's team had charged unequal treatment. It was simply a question of numbers. Because females comprised over 50 percent of Miami's undergraduates but only 42 percent of its athletes, the school was in danger of having "too few" women athletes-and, conversely, "too many" men-under the current interpretation of Title IX known as the "proportionality test." Something had to give. The three men's teams in question ate up just 4.7 percent of Miami's $10.5 million athletic budget, but they involved seventy athletes. Removing them would balance the numbers and create the illusion of "gender equity" at Miami-without adding a single female athlete.
"I felt discriminated against because I am a man but at the same time no women were being helped," said Studney. "It wouldn't have mattered to me if women had got more opportunities."
Providence, Rhode Island: Charlie Hickey had coached the winningest season in Providence College baseball history when his program was dropped in the spring of 1998. Panicked Providence administrators had consulted university attorneys and were advised to eliminate the 11-point gap between the percentages of female students and female athletes, and achieve "proportionality" of face a lawsuit and/or a federal investigation.
At Providence, as at Miami, fifty-seven male athletes lost their opportunity to compete and no new women's teams were added. "How crazy is it that, in order to create athletic opportunities for women, Providence College has had to take athletic opportunities away from men?" commented one local sports columnist.
Lexington, North Carolina: Six-year-old Jonathan Prevette became a poster child for the excesses of political correctness when he was suspended from his elementary school for kissing a classmate on the cheek. Jonathan said the girl asked for the kiss, and she never complained to teachers. Nonetheless, school officials sprang into action. "A six-year-old kissing another six-year-old is inappropriate behavior," said a district spokeswoman. "Unwelcome is unwelcome at any age."
Politicians and commentators nationwide decried the overreaction of officials at Prevette's school, but few stopped to consider the motivation for their response: Title IX. Meeting with Prevette's parents, the principal of his school said that Jonathan's action "had the potential of becoming a problem under the district's sexual harassment policy"-a policy that Title IX requires every school to have, including elementary schools. At young Jonathan's school, as in most schools, just what constituted sexual harassment was vague. Words, gestures, pictures, even looks could form the basis for a violation of the law. And as federal officials began to insist that Title IX sexual harassment prohibitions applied not just to predatory teachers and administrators but to fellow students as well, little boys across the country joined Prevette in being labeled potential harassers.
What is Title IX? And how has it come to have such a broad impact on both women and men, both boys and girls in America?
For most Americans, Title IX is synonymous with women and sports. If they've heard of the law at all, it is probably from glowing press coverage: heroic tales of gutsy women taking on the male-dominated sports world and winning-stories that invariably trace the existence of successful female athletes, like those on the U.S. Women's World Cup soccer team, to Title IX. While men's success on the playing field is invariably attributed to hard work and a fierce competitive spirit, it is unusual to read a story about a successful female athlete without also reading that her success owes to Title IX.
In fact, however, the law that is credited for breaking down the barriers of entry for thousands of girls and women to the testosterone-saturated world of athletics never mentions sports at all. The crucial language of Title IX is deceptively simple and to the point:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
Language this broad can cover a lot of ground, and Title IX does. In addition to sports, it covers admissions, student recruitment, course offerings, counseling, financial aid, housing, employment, scholarships, testing, health, pregnancy-anything and everything done by an educational institution that receives federal money in any form. It applies to public as well as private schools, and to kindergarten through graduate school. Title IX even covers government training programs, museums and private companies that receive federal education funds. In short, if it is touched by federal money and has an "educational" purpose, it falls under the jurisdiction of Title IX.
But it is sports-particularly college sports-that have made Title IX a household term.
When Heather Sue Mercer successfully sued Duke University to protest being cut from the football team, for instance, the law she used was Title IX. Coach Fred Goldsmith, Mercer charged, had discriminated against her, the only woman on the hundred-plus-man Duke squad, not because she was a lousy place kicker but because she was a woman. In fact, as Duke president Nannerl O. Keohane testified at trial, Mercer was given extra chances to make the team. Coach Goldsmith said he admired her spunk, but he and several former coaches and kickers testified that she didn't have the strength to boot long field goals against major college competition. Duke denied any bias, but the jury sided with the lady placekicker and awarded Mercer $2 million for her trouble.
In another case, when two soccer moms from California's Napa Valley were upset that their daughters were forced to play soccer in the winter while the boys' teams used the fields in the fall, they filed a complaint under Title IX. Girls, they maintained, were being treated unequally by having to play in the rain and mud after the boys had enjoyed the milder fall conditions. The federal government sent in a team of investigators and agreed, ordering school districts across a wide swath of northern California to move the girls' soccer season from winter to spring-or make the boys share equally in the chilly conditions of winter. As a result, soccer-playing girls are now complaining that they have to choose between soccer and other sports whose seasons suddenly overlap it, like softball, track and swimming. Lots of kids are upset, but the soccer moms are satisfied that they struck a blow for women's rights. "It's not a sports issue, it's a civil rights issue," one of them told the Los Angeles Times. "And you don't violate the law just because some kids have to make a choice."
The most familiar Title IX sports scenario today, however, involves neither girls on football teams nor disgruntled soccer moms. In the fall of 2000, when the federal government ordered the University of Wisconsin at Madison to create a new women's sport-even though no women on campus were clamoring for a new sport-the authority cited was Title IX. UWM had worked hard for over a decade to comply with education bureaucrats' notion of "equity" under the law, which is defined as proportionately equal participation by men and women, regardless of interest. Women's crew and ice hockey teams were added. The men's baseball team was eliminated. In 1999 UWM officials cut the number of nonscholarship players who could "walk on" the men's teams, including the Badger football team. They instituted floors below which participation on women's teams was not allowed to drop. By the autumn of 2000, they thought they had hit the mark: an equal number of men and women played varsity sports on the Madison campus. But not so fast.
Excerpted from Tilting the Playing Field by Jessica Gavora Copyright © 2002 by Jessica Gavora. Excerpted by permission.
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