This time last year, the Obama administration signaled that it would pursue stricter and more faithful enforcement of the gender-equity law known as Title IX. In announcing this move, Vice President Joe Biden called Title IX enforcement a political and moral “no-brainer”:
“What we’re doing here today will better ensure equal opportunity in athletics, and allow women to realize their potential — so this nation can realize its potential.”
Well, one year after Vice President Biden’s statement, civil rights advocates would do well to ask the Obama administration to step up and impose some actual accountability. By all accounts, too many universities are still violating the letter and spirit of Title IX.
Katie Thomas, a writer at The New York Times, recently examined how college athletic programs are executing against the current Title IX rules and guidelines. What she found was a great deal of unethical — and many times brazen — gamesmanship:
“At Cornell, only when the 34 fencers on the women’s team take off their protective masks at practice does it become clear that 15 of them are men. Texas A&M and Duke are among the elite women’s basketball teams that also take advantage of a federal loophole that allows them to report male practice players as female participants.”
When a law meant to promote gender equality in higher education allows you to count men as women, you know there is something grossly wrong.
In large part, the current problems with Title IX rest on a concept called roster management. Each year, universities are required to send their male and female participation numbers to the Department of Education. And every year, instead of attempting to achieve a real-life gender balance within their athletic programs (as required by Title IX), a number of schools have resorted to reporting misleading or false numbers. Thomas writes in her New York Times expose:
“…[I]nstead of pouring money into new women’s teams or trimming the rosters of prized football teams, many colleges are turning to a sleight of hand known as roster management. According to a review of public records from more than 20 colleges and universities by The New York Times, and an analysis of federal participation statistics from all 345 institutions in N.C.A.A. Division I — the highest level of college sports — many are padding women’s team rosters with underqualified, even unwitting, athletes. They are counting male practice players as women. And they are trimming the rosters of men’s teams.”
We would be heartless to not acknowledge the budget difficulties that so many university educators are facing right now. If you’re a college president charged with surviving a budget shortfall in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps you’d find it hard to stomach any changes to your cash-cow football program — changes that might bring your school in line with Title IX. However, this kind of of hypothetical is a false one; fixing Title IX is not a zero-sum game.
Indeed, The New York Times article makes it clear that there’s a lot more that colleges can and should be doing to recruit prospective women athletes who are currently in high school, as well as draw in participation from current college students. The fact that universities aren’t doing these things — and would rather take the lazy route and submit fraudulent numbers to the Department of Education — represents a problem that can only be fixed by the federal government via a mix of incentives (what if we proactively rewarded universities for promoting gender equity?) as well as corrective and punitive measures.
It looks like we’re still waiting on some colleges to own up to their mistakes, or at the very least publicly explain what they’re going to do to adhere to Title IX from here on out. I haven’t seen any substantive statement from Cornell University in New York, for instance, which counted 15 men as members of the Cornell fencing team. Or anything from Marshall University in West Virginia, whose women’s tennis team took on three freshman as practice members — i.e., they never competed in an official match — in order to pad their numbers. (Kudos, though, to the editors of The Parthenon, Marshall’s student newspaper, who criticized their school and emphasized that “all female and male sports deserve equal treatment.”)
And then there’s the issue of strengthening the law itself, which involves closing off existing loopholes and preempting potential ones as well. To start, shouldn’t universities be prevented from counting male athletes as members of women’s teams, and pressed to invest more in identifying, recruiting, and supporting female athletes? Student athletes are often seen as models of achievement, excellent, and moral character. It would be good if we could reasonably say the same about the administrators and educators who control our athletic programs.