Like most viewers of the Olympics, I’ve been watching the Winter Games in a state of perpetual awe. How does one skate that fast or ski jump that high? But I’ve also been waiting for the much-anticipated conversation about how female Olympians can thank Title IX for their success.
To be fair, it took four full days before I heard anything; but earlier this week I came across a post on Facebook from a progressive woman I’ve joined many times as a panelist on TV. She wrote:
As I watch the many women competing at the Olympics, I remember fondly one of my political 'mothers' — former Hawaii Congresswoman Patsy Mink, the first woman of color (Asian-American) in Congress. She authored a landmark law known by its number, Title IX, which required all educational institutions receiving gov't money to provide equal access to women and girls. What she never foresaw was that this law applied to athletic facilities, which now had to provide equally for girls wanting to compete in sports. She herself told me that she never thought that Olympic medal winners would emerge as a result of this legislation, whose primary focus was for educational equity. Women athletes in the US don't know her name, but they know the number, Title IX, and they frequently say how grateful they are for it. Patsy Mink is a good argument for why we need to support women in politics, because just maybe, just one woman can change the lives of millions of women for the better.
On big occasions like the Olympics it’s easy to want to celebrate women’s success. And there is a lot to celebrate in Sochi: This is the first year women’s ski jumping is part of the Winter Olympic games. There’s only one remaining sport that is open to men but not women: Nordic combined, which puts together cross-country skiing with ski jumping. And while male athletes still outnumber women in both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games we’re closer to gender parity than ever before.
Certainly it's exciting that so many women are competing and succeeding in athletics, but it’s time to move away from presenting women’s success as a result of good policy. What’s more we need to stop viewing men’s and women’s levels in athletics as a kind of scoreboard, in which women will only “win the gold” when they outnumber men.
But unfortunately, that's the legacy of Title IX. The original goal of Title IX was a noble one: to outlaw discrimination in educational institutions on the basis of gender. And it makes sense to make sure that women and girls have the same opportunity to participate in all education-related activities, including in athletic competitions. But over the years, the application of Title IX has morphed into something quite different. It’s shifted from preventing discrimination to a de facto quota system, which has been used not just to increase athletic opportunities for women, but also to eliminate opportunities for men in the name of gender equality.
And the effects have been dramatic. Between 1981-2005 men's athletics teams per school dropped 17 percent while women's teams rose by 34 percent. The proportional participation clause used in Title IX's enforcement states that if the number of female athletes is not "proportional" to the number of women enrolled at an institution then the school is technically "discriminating." It means that in order to balance the gender scales – and in order to avoid government harassment, lawsuits, and loss of funding – colleges and universities simply get rid of men’s sports opportunities. What’s more, because women are often 60 percent of a school's student body, Title IX requires that 60 percent of athletes must also be female.
Cuts have been widespread from James Madison University, which cut 10 sports teams in 2007, to the University of Delaware, Liberty University, UNC Greensboro, University of Nebraska Omaha, Truman State, and the University of Maryland. Most recently Temple University just announced it would cut seven teams – including baseball and rowing – pointing once again to Title IX regulations.
Men and women are different, and they may choose to engage in different academic disciplines, activities, and sports. Women on college campuses out-participate men in theater, music, newspapers, and student government. Yet, athletics has been the only major extracurricular arena in which male participation consistently outnumbers female. So why is athletics the only one that warrants government oversight?
There are a lot of women (and men) who trained extremely hard to make it to the Olympics. It was their work and determination – not a government policy – that brought them to Sochi.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is executive director of Independent Women’s Forum