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Playing fair

Sports | A pair of little-noticed rulings may leave their mark on women's sports

Issue: "Who will be the next pope?," April 16, 2005

The bent basketball rims in the girls' gymnasium at Ensley High School in Birmingham, Ala., recently made way for coach Roderick Jackson to play offense on a different sort of court more than 700 miles away.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on March 18 that Mr. Jackson could sue the Birmingham Board of Education for firing him as Ensley High coach. He contends that school officials fired him as a coach but kept him as a teacher because he complained that his female basketball players did not receive the same facilities and funding as the boys' team.

Previously Mr. Jackson tried to sue under Title IX-the federal law prohibiting schools from discriminating in sports programs on the basis of sex-but lost in lower federal courts, which said the law only allows the direct target of discrimination to sue. The high court disagreed and ruled that Title IX should also protect witnesses who report discrimination.

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Women's sports and advocacy groups hailed the court's decision, calling it a huge win for fairness to women. But nine states and the National School Boards Association argued against Mr. Jackson, saying the decision could open the litigation floodgates for disgruntled employees and potentially cost school districts millions of dollars.

The decision was one of two substantial changes for Title IX regulations in a week. The other came on March 17 when the U.S. Department of Education issued a new rule on how schools may show they are in compliance with the 1972 law to give women more opportunities to participate in school sports programs.

The new clarification allows school officials to conduct a survey to determine student interest in campus sports. If students-male or female-do not indicate significant interest in participating in a certain sport, the school would not be required to organize and fund it.

The Women's Sports Foundation immediately issued a statement denouncing the plan, saying a survey is "an invalid measure of interest in participation." NCAA President Myles Brand also opposed the plan, saying surveys will measure only women's current interest in sports rather than "inspiring potential interest."

But Jim McCarthy, spokesman for the College Sports Council, an organization that supports Title IX reform, told WORLD that the surveys are "an encouraging step forward." "It means that at long last government quotas will no longer be forced on school athletic programs," he said.

Mr. McCarthy rebuffed the notion that a survey is an invalid measure of interest: "There's no more simple, more direct way to find out what sports women want than to ask them."

For the last three decades, most schools have complied with Title IX by keeping the number of male and female athletes proportionate to the percentage of male and female students enrolled at the school. When Title IX was passed 32 years ago, some 294,000 girls participated in high-school athletics, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Today, some 2.7 million girls participate. From 1981 to 1999 the total number of college women's teams increased by 66 percent.

But while women's athletics have grown under Title IX, men's athletics have shrunk on several fronts. The NCAA men's cross-country program has lost 183 teams in the past 15 years, according to the College Sports Council. Men's NCAA wrestling, swimming, golf, tennis, and gymnastics have declined as well.

In one infamous 1994 case, UCLA cut its men's swimming team to comply with Title IX requirements. The program had clinched dozens of NCAA titles and produced a slew of Olympic athletes.

Rita Simon, a sociologist at American University and a member of the Department of Education Committee that recommended using surveys in conjunction with Title IX, told WORLD that polling students could help preserve good programs. It can't hurt to ask, she said.

"I think we need more data" said Ms. Simon. "Everyone might be right that the same number of men and women are interested in sports, but let's see it in writing."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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