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The Title IX Fraud

Mises Daily: Thursday, July 15, 1999 by


In the aftermath of the women's soccer championship there has been an outpouring of statism. Hardly a mention of the victory is made without someone trying to convince us that it would not have been possible without the help of government.

The specific law to which they refer is the 1972 amendment to the federal civil rights act, better known as Title IX. This law mandated that educational institutions receiving any form of federal government aid provide "equal" athletic opportunities both to male and female students.

The U.S. Department of Education has interpreted the law as requiring colleges and universities to match the sexual ratio of their student body to their athletes. Thus, a college with a male- female ratio of 50 percent must have the same ratio among varsity athletes.

As the story goes, Title IX forced recalcitrant college administrators to provide both sports and athletic scholarships, none of which would be in existence, were it not for the foresightedness of the government. Had it not been for Congress, they declare, no colleges would have any sports programs for females, who would be relegated to the sidelines wearing skimpy cheerleading outfits.

For example, soccer officials had hardly begun to hang the gold medals around the necks of the winners before ABC Sports announcer Robin Roberts, herself a star athlete in college two decades ago, told viewers that the only thing that had made this moment possible was Title IX.

The absurdity of her statement is difficult to comprehend. In other words, she actually believed that the only reason that spectators had filled stadium after stadium across the United States (tickets for the final were selling at up to $1,000 on the street) was because the government had coerced them into doing so. Without Title IX hanging over their heads, people would have stayed home in order to drink beer, play golf, or abuse their daughters.

Roberts was not the only one to pronounce such drivel. Donna de Varona, who won an Olympic gold medal in swimming long before Title IX was conceived, beat home the theme that U.S. women would be competitive in athletics only if the government kept a vigilant eye over sports. Scores of newspaper columnists and editorial writers, not to be left out, continued the theme ad nauseum.

That many in the nation's athletic establishments, along with seasoned journalists, should continue to bang home this argument should give the rest of us pause. What they seem to be saying is that women's athletics here is little more than a ward of the state--and they wish to keep it that way.

It’s true that many collegiate women's teams exist only because federal authorities require them, and sometimes the results resemble something from a Franz Kafka story or the Theater of the Absurd. For example, a few years ago Brown University had been trying unsuccessfully to lure enough female athletes to match the required DOE ratio. Not satisfied with their results, some women sued and the court forced the university to eliminate a number of men's teams in order to promote a numerical "balance."

An early and bizarre Title IX ruling came 21 years ago in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. At that time, high school girls basketball teams in that state had six players to a side, three on each end of the court instead of the five-on-five full court game currently played. A player from Oak Ridge High School sued her school for sex discrimination in federal court but lost. However, federal bureaucrats from the Jimmy Carter administration declared that Oak Ridge High School unlawfully discriminated against females and ordered the school to begin playing five-on-five ball within 30 days of the ruling, even though the other teams in the state were still playing six-on-six.

In other words, Oak Ridge High School, by playing under long-time rules of the state athletic association that had already been declared legal in court, was still in violation of the law. (Tennessee officials gave in after that and girls played the standard game the next season.)

Despite such absurd outcomes, supporters of Title IX insist that the law is the only reason that there are any women athletes today and that it is welfare enhancing for all of society. The first charge is ridiculous and the second is easily disputed.

Long before Congress passed Title IX, the Iowa girls high school basketball championships played to sellout crowds, many of whom left after the boys took to the floor. (Iowa at that time played the "old" version of girl's basketball. The current game does not generate the enthusiasm of 30 years ago in that state.) Both scholastic and amateur athletic opportunities for women have existed for many years. When I was growing up in Tennessee, girl's basketball was akin to a religion in some parts of the state and girls' games often outdrew those of the boys.

What is different today is the presence of a number of relatively obscure sports for collegiate women like crew and lacrosse, which are popular in some areas of the country but unknown elsewhere. Title IX is the reason that many women's crew, lacrosse, and fencing teams have varsity status at colleges and universities, as athletic administrators scramble to find enough bodies to fill government quotas.

One might argue that all of this is good on its face, as many females now have the chance to be varsity athletes earning athletic scholarships, something that was not possible 20 years ago. However, in order to make way for these new sports, the government forced colleges to drop many established men's teams that had more fan support than did the programs that replaced them.

The sport hit hardest has been wrestling, once a very popular collegiate sport. Even though U.S. wrestlers have long been a world power, athletic directors across the country have eliminated wrestling teams to satisfy bureaucrats. In the coming years, one can expect U.S. wrestlers to become less competitive internationally. Track and field has also hit the chopping blocks as the sport the United States once dominated in the Olympics falls by the wayside to make politicians happy.

While it is impossible to measure "welfare" transfers as such, we can clearly see that colleges scrambling to satisfy the Title IX hawks have eliminated popular men's teams, thus depriving those athletes of opportunities for athletic scholarships. On the other hand, many of the new women's sports are not as popular with fans. Thus, whatever gains come to many collegiate female athletes come directly at the expense of both male athletes and their fans.

Fan support is a big drawback to women's athletics in general. Only a few NCAA Division I women's programs actually run in the black, the most notable being the University of Tennessee and the University of Connecticut, both of which have highly successful women's basketball teams. The modest success of the Women's National Basketball Association exists only because the teams play a truncated schedule during the summer and pay moderate salaries, compared to the regular seven-figure paychecks earned by male basketball stars. A highly competitive women's professional league, the American Basketball League, folded last winter because of lack of interest.

Even the sellout crowds for the Women's World Cup Soccer Championships must be seen in the light that similar-sized crowds fill collegiate football stadiums on any Saturday during the fall, while normal crowds for collegiate women's soccer games are at best a few hundred spectators who usually pay no admission. Whether or not the recent World Cup win can be parlayed into a successful professional women's soccer league remains to be seen.

All of this may be true, counter Title IX supporters, but they go on to ask, "Would all of these athletic opportunities have existed for women without the force of the law?" Answering such a question is difficult. There is no doubt that by coercing colleges to fund some women's athletic teams that ordinarily would not have been funded, Title IX has pushed collegiate athletics in a direction it otherwise would not have gone. The real question is whether or not this is a good thing.

To see how things might have looked otherwise, one should look at how sports has evolved outside the Title IX umbrella. The explosion of boys' and girls' junior soccer leagues has occurred for many reasons, none of them having to do with the Department of Education. Colleges were already in the process of adding sports like women's basketball even before Congress acted. The regular crowds of 20,000 or more that come to see the Tennessee Lady Volunteers (and still outdrawing the men) do not come to celebrate Title IX, but come to watch their favorite team play a high level of ball.

It is impossible to know in advance which sports "should" or "should not" be successful in a free society. What we can know is this: when government prods the market system one direction or another, it discredits genuine accomplishments and squeezes out possible alternative arrangements. It is not the business of government in a free society to decide the sexual composition of teams or what sport they should play.

In a setting of genuine sports freedom, there would most likely there would be fewer crew and lacrosse programs, but other sports opportunities would have replaced them. The idea that the pre-1972 collegiate sports regime would somehow still be frozen in time is laughable. What is most surely true, however, is that sports and especially women's sports would not be providing a regular occasion for political harangues that now accompany any athletic championship for females. We would simply be able to admire the games without hearing from our local politician.

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William Anderson is completing his PhD program in economics from Auburn University.