Nothing less than the shape of college and high school sports is at stake as the commission on Title IX cobbles together proposals that could revamp a law that has been praised, scorned and challenged for 30 years.
The worst thing the commission could do, and the last thing it wants, is to recommend weakening a law that has done more for women -- athletes and non-athletes alike -- than any measure since the 19th Amendment gave women the vote.
Stop Title IX from hurting some men's sports, yes.
Set standards that make it easier for universities to follow, yes.
Juggle the rules so much that they set back women even a fraction, an emphatic no.
Title IX, the 1972 law that outlawed sex discrimination in any school that received federal funds, spurred a cultural revolution and a boom in women's sports that no one wants to curtail.
But the cost, critics have argued with some persuasiveness, has been a derailment of dozens of men's sports programs -- most prominently wrestling, swimming and gymnastics -- as schools have shifted resources to comply with a three-part test used by the federal Office of Civil Rights.
The first and most controversial part of that test, measuring whether the percentage of women athletes is roughly equal to the school's female population, is the target of a lawsuit filed by the National Wrestling Coaches Association.
The Commission on Opportunity in Athletics, assembled by Education Secretary Rod Paige to review Title IX, met in Philadelphia the past two days after holding public hearings in four other cities. In long, tedious sessions that revealed the magnitude of the 15-member panel's task and the implications for the next generation of athletes, the group debated details of recommendations that will be submitted to Paige in January.
For all the credentials and good intentions of the panel, co-chaired by former WNBA star Cynthia Cooper and Stanford athletic director Ted Leland, it's not clear whether their meetings will amount to much more than a dog and pony show for a Bush administration that some worry is intent on weakening Title IX.
None of the panelists suggested doing away with the proportionality test, but many favored allowing schools some ''wiggle room'' of up to seven percent, as Maryland athletic director Deborah Yow suggested, instead of strict compliance.
That would give schools a chance to account for walk-ons, transfers and athletes who become academically ineligible, she said, while ''vastly improving the current status for women in sports.''
Julie Foudy, captain of the U.S. national soccer team, argued that proposal would significantly dilute Title IX. The law, she said, is ''not about making significant improvements, it's about equality. We're not there.''
Title IX actually is about gender equity, not equality, and the difference is more than semantics. The law calls for stopping discrimination against women, not the creation of identical athletic programs for males and females. For Foudy and some others who want to see the law boost women's sports further, equality is the goal.
''You are creating a situation that is essentially unequal,'' Foudy told Yow.
''Julie, you are not going to get everything you want,'' Yow responded, reflecting the sense that the Bush administration is more likely to limit the scope of Title IX rather than expand on it.
The panel came up with numerous proposals, some of them contradictory, and will vote next month on final recommendations.
''Anything that creates more flexibility is moving in the right direction, but it's a question of how far it goes,'' said National Wrestling Coaches Association executive director Michael Moyer, who came to listen to the panel's debate. ''Our lawsuit is all about abolishing proportionality. Imagine if proportionality had to apply to dance, theater, band, engineering, the physics department.''
Proportionality doesn't apply to those for a good reason: It's not needed as much as it is in sports.
Title IX has been an extraordinary success. From 1971 to today, Education Department figures show, the number of girls participating in high school athletics has increased from 294,015 to 2.7 million. Over the past 20 years, the number of women's teams at both the high school and college levels has increased by 66 percent.
The benefits of Title IX can be seen in the sellouts at the NCAA women's Final Four, the gold medals of the women on the U.S. Olympic team, the crowds at WNBA games. Suzy Whaley had a chance to play golf at North Carolina in the 1980s. This week, she accepted an invitation to play in the Greater Hartford Open, the first woman to qualify for a PGA Tour event.
Those who bemoan the shutdown of some men's programs have legitimate gripes that need to be addressed. The solution can't come, though, by compromising a law that has meant so much to women and the country.
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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