Wednesday, January 16, 2002
WASHINGTON A federal law credited with transforming women's athletics causes discrimination against men in lower-profile college sports such as wrestling and track, coaches and athletes allege in a lawsuit against the government.
The suit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia largely blames a 1996 rule clarifying the 1972 statute known as Title IX, which prohibits any school or college that receives federal funding from discriminating based on sex in sports or academics.
Because nearly all the nation's schools receive some federal aid, the law has had a dramatic impact, particularly on women's athletics.
Federal regulations say schools can comply with Title IX's guarantee of equal treatment for female athletes in a number of ways: by showing that opportunities for women are "substantially proportionate" to their enrollment, that opportunities correspond to the level of students' interest, or that new teams are being added. A 1996 clarification of those rules said, in part, that actual athletes would be counted rather than simply spots allotted to teams.
The suit against the Education Department, financed by the National Wrestling Coaches Association, contends that as a result of those rules and court decisions interpreting them, many colleges and universities have come to see trimming men's sports -- rather than adding women's teams -- as the only way to achieve equality.
Over the last decade, 350 men's programs have been cut, said Eric Pearson, an NWCA co-chairman. Those losses have come mostly in sports that don't bring in revenue, such as swimming, wrestling, track-and-field and gymnastics and have prevailed in some cases despite offers from alumni and parents to take over funding of the sports, Pearson said.
Numerous lawsuits have been filed against individual schools for such decisions, all unsuccessful.
But the NWCA suit challenges the rules themselves, arguing they were adopted illegally. It asks the court to force the department to write new ones defining compliance as providing opportunities for female athletes based on interest instead of enrollment.
"Capping a male athlete off a team or cutting an entire men's team solely because not enough female students have an interest in athletics is gender discrimination per se -- with absolutely no corresponding benefit to women," the suit says.
The Education Department, through a spokesman, said it could not comment on pending litigation.
But Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, said the law's requirements are not as rigid as the NWCA claims. Several studies, in fact, have shown that the majority of schools come into compliance without cutting men's teams or relying on comparisons to enrollment, and that men's participation in athletics has increased as well.
Greenberger suggested the blame lies not with Title IX as the suit argues, but with schools' decisions to place a priority on popular moneymaking sports like football and basketball.
"There has been a concerted effort to weaken Title IX ... since the very day it was passed," she said. "This is part of a longtime effort that fortunately has never borne fruit."
The government has 60 days to respond.