When the University of Delaware announced this year that it was demoting its men’s track and cross-country teams to club status, the news was sad but not surprising to many who follow college sports. Enlarge This Image

Gender Games This series is examining how colleges have approached compliance with Title IX since 1972 and the obstacles to enforcing the law.

Delaware is one of dozens of universities that have eliminated low-profile men’s teams like wrestling, gymnastics and swimming in an effort, the universities say, to comply with Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination in education.

But in cutting the men’s varsity track team, Delaware took the practice a step further. The university did not make the argument that it needed to cut the team to immediately comply with the law – after all, it plans to add a women’s golf team in the fall. Instead, officials say they are ending the track program, which has its 100th anniversary this year, out of concern that they could not remain compliant in the future.

Now, members of the men’s track team have taken an unusual step of their own: they have filed a complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights, which oversees Title IX, alleging that Delaware is discriminating against its male athletes. The office decided to look into the complaint, and last week, the university agreed to enter into mediation with the track team to try to resolve the issue.

Although Title IX has typically been invoked to protect the rights of women, cases alleging discrimination against men are not unheard of, said Russlynn H. Ali, the assistant education secretary who heads the civil rights office. Of the 96 Title IX complaints related to athletics received in the 2010 fiscal year, 11 involved allegations of discrimination against men, according to the office. In the previous year, they made up 10 of the 80 athletics-related Title IX complaints.

Ali noted that women now made up a majority of enrolled students at colleges and universities.

“Title IX protects against sex discrimination,” Ali said. “Traditionally, the underrepresented sex in institutions of higher education has been women. That is changing.”

Universities can comply with Title IX in one of three ways: by showing that the number of female athletes is proportionate to the share of overall female enrollment, by demonstrating a continuing history of expanding sports for women, or by proving that the athletic interests and abilities of the female student body are being met. Rather than spend money on expanding sports for women, many universities have instead cut men’s teams in order to comply with the proportionality method. The practice is frowned upon by the Office for Civil Rights, but it is not prohibited.

Ali said her office was aware of circumstances in which men are underrepresented when it comes to college athletic scholarships, even though they are overrepresented in their overall participation in athletics. And the University of Kansas recently resolved a discrimination complaint filed by a former male swimmer who alleged that the university had been providing athletic slots to a disproportionate number of women. Kansas agreed to reduce the size of its women’s teams and encourage more men to walk on to other men’s teams.

Still, men who claim discrimination under the law have had a poor success rate, especially in the courts, said Allison Kasic, an advocate for reform of Title IX who is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, a right-of-center research and education institution. One of the most high-profile examples involved the decision in 2006 by James Madison University to cut seven men’s teams to comply with the law. A coalition of athletes, fans and others sued to reverse the decision, but the lawsuit was dismissed.

Tom Rogers, a former captain of the Delaware track team who graduated in 1989, said universities like Delaware were distorting the intent of Title IX.

“How did we ever get to a place where a program that is supposed to be about creating opportunities for women is now being used in a way to create no opportunities for women and to cut men?” he said.

Delaware officials declined to comment. But in a January statement announcing the decision, they said they had no alternative.

“Continued expansion of our athletics program is not feasible in this financial climate, and given that reality, the university made the only decision it could,” Bernard Muir, Delaware’s athletic director, said in the statement.

Kasic said many colleges used the proportionality method to comply with Title IX because it was seen as a permanent fix; the other two methods require continuing efforts to expand sports for women or to monitor interest on campus. By adding women’s golf, the university may be in compliance now, but “it’s still a short-term solution,” she said.

But Corey Wall, a co-captain of the men’s track team who helped file the complaint, said Delaware was overzealous in applying the law, especially when there was no apparent threat of a lawsuit or an investigation challenging compliance.

“We’re not fighting Title IX at all; we’re just fighting the misuse of it,” Wall said.

Wall said he was optimistic about the news that the university had agreed to enter into talks with his team.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction for us,” he said, adding that until now, the university had been reluctant to discuss the issue. “We haven’t gotten a chance to sit down and talk with them about this.”