When it comes to men's football, or "soccer" as Americans call it, the United States has struggled to earn a respectable international reputation. But change the genders, and America is an undisputed world leader - winning the first ever Women's World Cup in 1991 - and taking home the Gold in 1996, when women's soccer made its debut as an Olympic sport.
Indeed, when it comes to women's athletics in general, the United States is far ahead of many countries and experts say it's because of a landmark piece of civil rights legislation enacted in 1972. "Title IX" requires all high schools and colleges to provide equal athletic opportunities to boys and girls. But at the end of January, the U.S. Department of Education plans to recommend some changes to Title IX. It's a Thursday night at the McDonough Gymnasium on Georgetown University's campus in Washington, D.C. About 200 fans have gathered to see Georgetown's women's basketball team take on their archrivals from George Washington University.
"Three points for Mary Lisicky" the announcer said.
The Georgtown "Hoyas", as they're called, have a record of 7-1 so far this season. They're considered a tough team to beat and all the players bring a good deal of experience to the court. Most learned how to play basketball while they were in high school, but starting player Sarah Jenkins said she might not have ever played the sport seriously, if her high school had offered a broader array of choices to its girls.
"I got into basketball, because I wanted to play soccer," Ms. Jenkins said. "And at the time, there weren't any girls' soccer teams. So I had to pick something else. And I just chose basketball, and I found it was something I liked to do, so I stuck with it."
Title IX was enacted more than 30 years ago, but many women athletes who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s will tell you their high schools and colleges didn't offer equal opportunities to boys and girls. Sometimes this was because the schools simply ignored the law. But often, it was because there's been some disagreement about what it means to offer "opportunities" that are "equal." Title IX doesn't say a school has to have a girls' soccer team simply because it has a boys' soccer team.
Instead, "equal opportunity" is defined in three different ways, and a school can adopt any one of them as its definition. The first two ways involve having a "history" of promoting girls' sports and "meeting the interests" of it's female athletes. But these two definitions are vague and not easily quantified, and schools that have adopted them have been sued by girls who feel they've been denied athletic opportunities.
So attorneys have begun to advise schools to comply with Title IX by adopting the third definition. It's known as "proportionality," and it says a school is providing equal athletic opportunities to its students, if the percentage of male and female athletes mirrors the percentage of male and female students.
"So if 55 percent of the full-time enrollment at a university is women, then 55 percent of the athletes must be women," said Mr. Moyer.
Mike Moyer is executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. He and his colleagues are suing the U.S. Department of Education, because they say the proportionality component of Title IX has led to discrimination against male athletes.
Women make up a majority of the student body at many universities. But Mike Moyer said girls aren't as interested in sports as boys are, and many don't join teams, even when those teams are available. As a result, Mr. Moyer said a number of schools, such as Marquette University in Illinois, have had to reduce the number of male athletes, in order to keep the male to female ratio in line with enrollment.
"Marquette had an inter-collegiate wrestling program that was almost entirely self funded for six years. And in the spring of 2001, they were forced to discontinue their wrestling program, because they could not meet the proportionality prong of Title IX" he said. "It did nothing to benefit women on that campus, and those boys were very clearly discriminated against, just because they were boys. It flies completely in the face of what Title IX stands for."
The Wrestling Coaches Association wants the Department of Education to get rid of the proportionality component of Title IX. The group's lawsuit has provoked a formal review of the law, and the government says at the end of January, a special commission will recommend some changes. One modification being considered would allow the ratio of male to female athletes to vary by as much seven percent from the ratio of male to female students. But this proposal is totally unacceptable to Jamie Fastow of the American Association of University Women.
"What is that going to lead to? What's going to be the next civil rights law that's gutted? Which is basically what we're talking about doing to athletics participation," she said. "You know, having a variance on proportionality, which would say it's OK for you to discriminate by seven percent."
Jamie Fastow denies Mike Moyer's assertion that girls are less interested in sports than boys, and says whenever a college or high school has fielded a girls team in any sport, there's been no shortage of players. Ms. Fastow says schools wouldn't have to eliminate wrestling programs if they just expanded their athletic programs for women. But that costs money, and Jamie Fastow says many universities simply aren't willing to divert funds from their large men's basketball and football programs to do that. Instead, they eliminate men's programs that are slightly less popular.
"It's important to remember that those are budgetary decisions schools are making. They actually have nothing to do with proportionality. Take Marquette University," Ms. Fastow said, "that's something the wrestlers use a lot. They had a wrestling team cut. They have a huge basketball program, and so it's really unfair to blame the girls for budgetary decisions that schools make."
Jamie Fastow says Title IX is fine the way it is, and she worries that if it's changed, hundreds of women's sports programs could be cut. She says that could have all sorts of unintended consequences, since studies show girls who play sports are far more likely to go to college, and far less likely to do drugs, or become pregnant as teenagers.
Meanwhile, Mike Moyer of the Wrestling Coaches Association says he's encouraged by the Department of Education's review of the law, but says if proportionality isn't eliminated, his group intends to follow through with their lawsuit.