The Super Bowl, the World Series, and March Madness all pulse with testosterone. But the Olympic Games — with heart-wrenching stories of years of sacrifice for one moment of glory in Athens — are ready-made for women. Not only do women account for more than half of the Olympics’ television viewers, female athletes are Olympic stars. Networks cover women’s gymnastics, diving, track, and swimming in primetime. The Olympic Games produce superstars like Kerri Strug, whose vault clinched the U.S gymnastic team a gold medal in 1996; and Marion Jones, who sprinted to five medals in 2000.
This Olympics will be no different. Among the most anticipated events is return of soccer darlings Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain. They won the gold in 1996 and will compete one last time as a team in Athens. Swimmer Jenny Thompson already has eight gold medals to her name, and could finish her fourth Olympic Games with 13 medals.
These female Olympians deserve to be celebrated: their courage and hard work will inspire many young girls to participate in sports. This decision can have an important impact: female athletes have higher graduation rates, are less likely to have unwanted pregnancies and report higher levels of self-esteem. Sports similarly benefit boys and may play an important role in helping them socialize and form positive relationship with their peers. That’s why girls and boys should both be encouraged to participate in athletic activity at early age.
Unfortunately, instead of just encouraging participation in sports, the federal law known as Title IX pits our male and female athletes against each other. Under this regime, it’s not just female athletes’ progress that’s celebrated, but the elimination of male athletes.
Consider a Washington Post Olympic preview entitled “Female Athletes Continue to Gain Ground” written in April 2004. The article celebrated that nearly equal numbers of men and women — an estimated 282 men and 263 women — will represent the United States in Athens. It goes on to note that in the last summer Olympics, the U.S. sent 338 men and 264 women to compete.
Should these numbers really be cited as evidence of progress for women? The number of women competing was essentially unchanged. The so-called victory for women was the elimination of more than 50 male athletes from the U.S. roster.
This mentality comes as no surprise to those familiar with the application of Title IX. This federal law was intended to prevent discrimination based on sex on college campuses, including athletics, but has since become a death sentence for many male sports teams. The only sure fire way for colleges and universities to avoid potentially costly litigation is to make their rosters “proportional” to their enrollment. Since women account for about 56 percent of undergraduates (and there has been no outcry about the “lack of proportionality” in college enrollment) at many campuses, women need to account for more than half of all athletes.
To meet this quota, universities can either try to increase female participation or reduce the number of male athletes. Many have struggled to attract greater female participation. When Brown University was sued under Title IX in 1992, there were 85 unfilled spots on female varsity teams. Many universities resort to eliminating male athletic teams, including those that were once the training grounds for Olympic athletes. The University of Miami’s diving program, where gold medal winner Greg Louganis received a diving scholarship, was a casualty of Title IX. Since the last Olympics, more than 90 universities have eliminated track and field for men, and more than 20 have cancelled wrestling.
Female athletes are not celebrating the loss of male teams. Cyndi Gallagher, UCLA swimming coach, described the positive effects of having the men and women train together on her female athletes: “When we had a men’s team, we were always in the top 10.” In 1994, UCLA dropped men’s swimming and diving programs, which had produced 16 Olympians. Gallagher’s conflicted feelings reveal how Title IX has drifted away from its core mission: “I fully support Title IX. But choosing to drop men’s programs is not what Title IX wants.”
Title IX was supposed to ensure that women have the opportunity to participate in athletics. Instead, by focusing on equality of outcomes, it has made college athletics a zero sum game: women only win if men lose. It’s time for common sense reform to the application of Title IX that allows for greater participation by both men and women in athletics. That way, male and female athletes alike can come out winners.