Equality law threatens survival of male sport on US campuses

July 11, 1997

THE WOMEN'S National Basketball Association has made its United States debut - another milestone for women's sports.

Twenty-five years after US President Richard Nixon signed the famous Title IX, outlawing discrimination against women in public education, the WNBA is hailed as one of the law's many triumphs. Title IX, interpreted by the courts as promising women equal access to sports, has helped produce a surge in the number of female athletes.

The number of women playing games in college has swelled from 31,000 to 123,000. At universities, where women can now aim for the sports scholarships that were once almost exclusively for men, nine times as many females are out on the playing fields.

Women's rights groups praise the law for breaking sexist stereotypes, but also insist there is still much work to be done.

However, conservative critics are crying foul, arguing that political correctness has run amok in demanding equality. They say the courts have imposed quota systems on universities that force authorities to enrol a woman in a sports programme for every man that wants to play ball. If this is not done, popular men's sports are cancelled.

"If your daughter won't go out for softball, my son cannot play football," was how Pete du Pont, a former Republican governor, characterised a recent decision by the Supreme Court on sports programmes at Rhode Island's Brown University. The Supreme Court let stand a lower court's decision that Brown was obliged to ensure the same percentage of males and females were enrolled.

Bean-counting is unfair, critics like Mr du Pont say. The nub of their argument is that men naturally show more interest and aptitude for sports than do women.

A recent article by Mr du Pont was echoed by many readers' comments that the rule had good intentions, but is "currently eliminating opportunities for men".

Many universities are struggling to comply with Title IX, frequently under the threat of law suits. The University of Notre Dame, for example, disbanded its wrestling team. Some argue that flagship football teams should be exempt from court decisions demanding equal funding for women.

A legal fight over the California State University system has brought the issue into sharp relief. In 1993, the CSU accepted defeat in a lawsuit brought by the National Organisation for Women. The basis of a settlement was an agreement that the number of female athletes and the funding they received would, within five years, be within five percentage points of the men.

With that deadline fast approaching, one CSU campus in Los Angeles this month abolished its male baseball, volleyball, soccer and swimming teams. In 1995/96, women accounted for 41 per cent of undergraduates at the Northridge campus, and received 39 per cent of the sports funding.

But women account for 55 per cent of the CSU undergraduate body as a whole. Though a budget deficit was also blamed, these drastic cuts to achieve athletic parity brought loud complaints, from both student leaders and some parents.

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