Sporting types called to account

December 22, 1995

The United States education department, in a move that threatens to fire up the long-running controversy over sexism in sports, is to require colleges and universities to account publicly for what they spend on men's and women's athletics teams.

In the past, women's rights groups have used such information to sue universities on charges of sexual discrimination, in lawsuits that are usually successful but are often blamed for killing off sports programmes rather than improving them. The new rules follow the 1994 Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act. They require higher education institutions to disclose both funding levels and participation rates for men and women.

For more than 20 years institutions which receive federal government money have been barred from discriminating against students on the basis of sex.

But only relatively recently have a score of lawsuits used Title IX in the courts to level the playing field, sometimes drastically, between men's and women's sports. "The publication of spending figures is going to create a lot of pressure for equalisation in spending levels," said a spokesman for the American Council on Education.

Groups like ACE, which represents 1,800 colleges and universities, have tried to stay neutral in a debate which has tended to pit the folklore of male college sports teams - American football in particular - against the cry of equal opportunities for women.

In a celebrated 1992 lawsuit against Brown University, nine women successfully sued Brown for cutting its women's gymnastic and volleyball teams to save money, though it also wielded the axe against the men's golf and water polo teams.

A judge ruled Brown had broken the law because 51 per cent of it students were women but only 38 per cent of athletes. While that finding, apparently based on numerical quotas, is being challenged in the higher courts, it sent a shiver through many institutions because Brown was seen as a leader in the promotion of women's sports.

The Department of Education has laid down three tests that academic institutions must pass: athletic "gender parity", a growth of women's sports programmes over time, and programmes that meet the interest and abilities of women students. While women's college basketball, volleyball, and soccer have drawn a growing following, the bulk of sports scholarships are still aimed at men.

But critics say the legal requirements have seen more than 30 law suits striving to achieve an artificial balance in the face of evidence suggesting women are historically less interested in pursuing sports.

They blame a "feminist crusade" for dismembering traditional recreations like the men's football team at San Francisco State University which had been going for 64 years.

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