May 15, 1995
If any good can be said to have come from the recent court ruling
that Brown University discriminates against women in its athletic
programs, it is that it may lead to an examination of the intent of
the law Brown supposedly violated and a reassertion of common sense
in interpreting it.
In 1992, nine women sued Brown for violating Title IX of the
Education Amendments of 1972, which forbids schools that receive
federal funds from discriminating against students on the basis of
They based their case on Brown's decision to strip the women's
gymnastics and volleyball teams of varsity status to cut costs, even
though the school also axed the men's varsity golf and water polo
In a stunning decision that reflects a basic misunderstanding of the
intent of Title IX and of human nature as well, U.S. District Judge
Raymond Pettine ruled that Brown had violated the law because while
51 percent of its students are women, only 38 percent of its athletes
are. According to Pettine, the proportion of women on athletic teams
must "mirror" the total proportion of women students. If women
students outnumber men students, then women athletes must outnumber
Anyone who has ever been to a Super Bowl party knows what's wrong
with that logic. While many women are interested in sports and while
women participate in increasing numbers, far more men than women
make sports part of their lives.
Ironically, Brown University is considered a leader in women's
collegiate athletic opportunity: It offers 17 varsity sports for
women and 16 for men. But only 338 women participate compared with
555 men. And though the school submitted surveys showing that fewer
women than men students were interested in participating, the judge
wasn't buying it.
To be fair, Judge Pettine didn't pull the notion of athletic "gender
parity" out of his hat. It is one of three tests established by the
Education Department's Office of Civil Rights by which schools can
prove they are complying with Title IX.
However, the other two tests--showing a growth of women's sports
programs over time and proving that the sports program effectively
meets the interests and abilities of female students--are vague and
were given short shrift in the Brown case.
It's one thing to offer any one of three ways to prove compliance
with the law and quite another to make parity the only way, which
happened in the Brown decision. If it is upheld on appeal, Congress
should take a new look at Title IX, not to repeal it but to clarify
its intent and refine its guidelines.
The law's intent was to assure women the same opportunities as men on
college campuses, and that is still a valid concern. It was never
intended to create a numbers game that inhibits, rather than
enhances, campus athletics.
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