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Not for Lack of Interest

By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page D01


If a university had catered solely to my "interests" as an 18-year-old undergraduate, the entire campus would have been converted into a giant bar offering cheap beer and free pool. My only textbook would have been Stephen King's "The Stand," and dining hall cuisine would have consisted of Nacho Cheese Doritos. Mercifully, the university offered something more.

There are a lot of things I never thought I had an "interest" in, starting with the Bible and including Renaissance painting. I'm particularly proud of what I wasn't interested in, because the list mainly reflects my ignorance. Generally, when I lack interest in something, it's because I don't know enough about it. What I once thought of as morbid philosophy and gloomy literature I now think quite differently of. That's because I was a moron.

"Interest" is a word that dogs women's sports -- it inherently suggests that, on some level, games are still not an entirely legitimate subject for females. The Bush administration recently suggested that women should have to prove their "interest" in sports, via new language that tampers with Title IX. This is shocking not because it's sexist, but that it's such a regressive, anti-educational thought on the part of an administration that supposedly prizes fresh thinking.

In 1974, only 53 people attended Pat Summitt's debut as the Tennessee women's basketball coach. I'd have been among those who skipped it. But this weekend, when the 2005 women's Final Four is held at the RCA Dome, a crowd of 29,000 will attend and another 3.5 million households will enjoy it on television. This suggests that "interest" follows opportunity, and not vice versa.

"It's the Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come," says Widener Law professor Bob Hayman, co-author of the forthcoming "Sports and Inequality" from Carolina Academic Press.

Yet a couple of weeks ago, just as the NCAA tournament began, the Department of Education quietly issued a clarification to Title IX that would allow schools to survey their female students by e-mail, and to interpret a lack of response as a lack of sufficient interest in sports -- and thus permission to curb women's sports funding.

One problem with surveys is that they are notoriously crude measuring instruments. Just off the top of my head, I can think of one recent survey that was dead wrong: According to the exit polls, the other guy was the next president.

"If you pick out the right population for your survey, you can get the answer you're looking for," Summitt points out, "But it's not necessarily the best answer."

If you surveyed my friend Matt as to his interests as an undergrad, he'd have wanted electives in Frisbee and cigarettes. If you had surveyed my friend David when he was an undergrad, he would have made the varsity in a game called "Hi, Bob." It was a drinking contest that entailed sitting in front of "Bob Newhart Show" reruns and pulling from a beer every time someone said, "Hi, Bob."

"I could have been an Olympian in 'Hi, Bob,' " David says, "but I wasn't willing to do the steroids."

In all seriousness, anyone who thinks this survey is a reasonable idea should go to the Department of Education's Web site and take a look at it. It's eight pages long. And it's accompanied by 177 pages of explanations and instructions.

Think for a moment about whether you would want to apply it to any situation other than women's sports. What's next? You can keep women out of the marching band if enough of them don't show an interest in the trumpet? Is that where we're going?

Women earn 60 percent of all degrees in this country, but only 20 percent of them get degrees in engineering. And yet in his most impolitic moment, Harvard President Lawrence Summers never once suggested that women's lack of overt "interest" in the sciences means we should limit the number of chairs offered to women in engineering classrooms.

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