Girls in ponytails and soccer jerseys packed the front of a room at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. They elbowed each other and giggled as kids from across the nation spoke lovingly of basketball, pole vaulting and field hockey, and in support of Title IX–the 1972 law that has become synonymous with the rise of women’s sports. Since Title IX went into effect thirty-one years ago, girls’ athletic participation has skyrocketed. The number of girls playing varsity sports has gone up from one in twenty-seven in 1972 to almost one in two today.
Despite all the good feeling Title IX has engendered among girls and their parents, the law is currently under attack. The National Wrestling Coaches Association filed a lawsuit against the Education Department claiming that Title IX is decimating men’s college sports, forcing colleges to cut hundreds of wrestling programs–along with gymnastics, diving and other teams–in order to meet “quotas” for female athletes. The aggrieved jocks have found an ally in President Bush, who formed the Commission on Opportunity in Athletics last June to re-examine the law.
The high school girls descended on Washington for their press conference-cum-pep rally just as the commission convened its final meeting at the Hotel Washington. Outside the hotel, the Feminist Majority and the conservative Independent Women’s Forum held dueling press conferences. Inside the grand ballroom, a wrestling coach wearing a “No Quotas” button cruised the perimeter, handing out literature calling on the commission to “reject the gender politics of the special interest groups.”
That would be groups like the Women’s Sports Foundation–which helps girls seek equal funding and facilities for their teams–and Dads and Daughters, whose executive director, Joe Kelly, emceed the high school girls’ event.
Title IX, said Kelly, “is one of the best things that ever happened to fathers.”
“Sports is a natural comfort zone for men, and Title IX makes it a bridge to our daughters,” he said. He told the story of a friend, Dave, who coached his son and daughter in basketball, and was appalled by the inferior facilities provided to his daughter’s team.
“Dads get angry when daughters play on old fields or gyms that are in disrepair,” Kelly said. And that’s what Title IX was designed to fix. “Guys like Dave are not radical feminists. They simply know sports are good for girls. They also know sports are good for boys. Don’t tell me you’re going to treat my daughter differently than my son.”
High school girls still get about 1.1 million fewer opportunities than boys to play sports, according to the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education. But Bush’s commission finished its work by making a series of recommendations to weaken Title IX. Instead of making girls’ sports proportional to the number of female students enrolled, the commission recommended that schools aim for approximately 50/50 boy-girl representation. Schools that don’t reach parity would be allowed to use interest surveys to show that girls are getting as much opportunity as they desire. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, the changes could result in the loss of 300,000 participation opportunities and $100 million in scholarships for female athletes.
The deck was stacked at the commission from the beginning. High school athletes and coaches who support Title IX didn’t get to testify. Title IX opponents like wrestlers’ groups and the Independent Women’s Forum had disproportionate input. The commission’s two strongest Title IX advocates, Julie Foudy, captain of the US National Women’s Soccer Team, and Olympic gold medalist Donna de Varona, were treated to eye-rolling by fellow commissioners and outright hostility by wrestlers’ groups. In late February, the two refused to sign the final report, charging that the commission failed to acknowledge continuing discrimination against female athletes.