September 22, 2014

Editor's Page

Opportunities

Mark R. Howard | 5/1/2006
My daughter didn't get involved in soccer or other youth sports when she was younger. But this year, as a high school freshman, she discovered that she enjoys running and, thanks to competent, supportive coaches, has participated on her school's cross-country and track teams. I have admired her commitment and discipline. And I'm particularly pleased that her choice of activity was her own -- I never liked running.

Her younger brother, meanwhile, has played youth soccer each fall and now pitches for his Little League team. He brings his own level of intensity and determination to those activities. He has a natural curveball, and I'm proud of him, too.

Both seem to be getting exactly the same benefits from sports. They're healthier. They've learned teamwork and discipline. And win or lose, the fitness and savvy that accrue from participating in athletics have helped their self-esteem.

I don't pretend to know whether they will develop enough as athletes to participate at the college level. But while the benefits of participating will remain the same for them, I can say with near certainty that the opportunities to participate won't. Because of her gender, my daughter is likely to have fewer chances to play on a team than her brother at most colleges in Florida and in the U.S.

According to filings with the U.S. Department of Education, not one of 14 four-year public colleges and universities in Florida has a percentage of women athletes on its sports teams that is proportional with the percentage of women who attend the schools. At many schools, the gap is awful. At both Florida A&M in Tallahassee and Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton, for example, some 58% of the full-time undergrads are women, but only 35% of the schools' athletes are women.

At the University of West Florida in Pensacola, 59% of the students are women, but only 47% of the participants on school teams are women.

At the University of Florida, 54% of all students are women but only 42% of participants on school teams are women.

At Florida State, it's 57% vs. 46%. At USF in Tampa, which has a woman president, it's 59% vs. 46%.

Only three schools -- St. Petersburg College, Miami-Dade College and the University of Central Florida -- come close to having similar proportions of women on their sports teams as in the overall student population. Each is within five percentage points. The data for the University of Central Florida is particularly noteworthy because the school manages to create nearly as many athletic opportunities for its women as its men while operating a big-time football program. Some schools use football -- and the expense and the large number of male athletes such programs necessarily involve -- as an excuse for not having as many slots for women. (Plenty of football schools find ways to behave equitably. Traditional power Ohio State has a student body that's 47% female; almost exactly the same percentage of the school's sports team members are female as well.)

The other excuse that some give for not creating more women's teams is the assertion that girls just aren't as interested in participating. The growth in women's sports since the Title IX law was enacted some 30 years ago makes a mockery of that argument -- the number of women playing high school sports has increased about tenfold. Colleges, meanwhile, have witnessed an almost fivefold increase in the number of women playing sports. Every bit of experience shows that if you hire the right coaches and provide the opportunity, there will be plenty of women athletes ready and willing to play.

All the Title IX law requires is that schools provide equal opportunities to participate in athletics for both male and female students. There are no rigid proportionality quotas dictating that if 53% of students are women, then exactly 53% of the slots on teams have to be for women. The federal government has made it clear that schools don't have to cut or reduce teams to comply. And schools don't have to spend the same amount on women athletes as men: The law generously considers the 110 women rowers at UCF -- funded at $1,665 per participant -- to be getting just as much of an "opportunity" as UCF's 112 football players, who are funded at more than $7,000 apiece.

Schools can meet the law by complying with any one of three tests. One, if the number of female athletes is more or less proportional with the number of female students. Two, if the school can show that it has a history and "continuing practice" of expanding opportunities for female athletes. Or three, if the school can show that "the interests and abilities" of both genders are being accommodated. Imagine those standards applied to racial discrimination cases.

Title IX still has a little clout. Last year, FAMU tried to cut its women's swimming and diving team but reinstated it after a private group threatened to sue. But federal enforcement of the standards is really pretty limp, and the Bush administration in Washington is still trying to weaken it further. It tried an all-out assault on Title IX in 2003, was rebuffed by public opinion, then came back last year with a "clarification" of its policy: Schools could use an e-mail survey to determine interest among young women in playing sports. If the "survey" determined too little interest, the school could consider itself in compliance with the law.

That's a naked, shameless effort to weaken the law so much that everybody can forget about it. No less than the president of the NCAA, Myles Brand, says the change "will likely reverse the growth of women's athletics and could damage the progress made over the last three decades" since Title IX was enacted.

Meanwhile, says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville and a Title IX expert, the Bush administration in Washington has engaged in only two Title IX compliance cases -- and both were holdovers from the Clinton administration. The president may crow as much as he wishes about a few well-considered women appointments like Condoleezza Rice, but in terms of policies that affect opportunities and options for many thousands of women, his administration continues to be hugely unfriendly to women.

It will be terrific if my daughter has the skills to compete at the collegiate level by the time she graduates in three years. It will be even better if she and other young women get the same chance to play as the boys without having to go to court.

Tags: Politics & Law, Editor's column, Around Florida, Education, Government/Politics & Law

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