Colleges and universities would be allowed to limit the number of scholarships awarded to female athletes without regard to enrollment under the most controversial recommendation being considered by a national commission studying reform of Title IX, the landmark law that bans sex discrimination in collegiate sports.
Under the proposal, which is among two dozen the panel is studying, schools could devote as little as 43 percent of their athletic scholarships to women and still comply with the law -- even though women comprise 55 percent of the enrollment in the nation's four-year colleges.
The proposals, obtained by The Washington Post, are the first indication of the Bush administration's plans for changing Title IX, which is widely credited with increasing female participation in collegiate sports over the past three decades.
Since its passage in 1972, Title IX has never included any fixed numerical limits. Instead, schools comply with the law by ensuring that the percentage of male and female athletes is about equal to the ratio of men and women enrolled. They also can comply by demonstrating a history of expanding sports opportunities for women. The new recommendation would not prevent a school from awarding more than 43 percent of the spots on its sports teams to women. But the prospect of a limit on the number of scholarships and other athletic opportunities that a college would be required to offer women was immediately condemned by women's sports advocates. The proposal would end more than 30 years of growth in women's collegiate athletic opportunities, they said.
"[Any] change would violate fundamental notions of civil rights law," said Jocelyn Samuels, vice president of the National Women's Law Center, which is part of a coalition of groups resisting changes to Title IX regulations. "It would enshrine the principle that providing something less than equal opportunity can be treated as equal opportunity without further explanation."
The recommendations being considered by the Secretary of Education's Commission on Opportunity in Athletics are aimed preserving the intent of Title IX, while addressing concerns that it is often enforced in a way that enhances female athletic opportunities at the expense of men. Male athletes have complained that smaller sports have been cut back as resources have been shifted to women's teams.
An alternative recommendation being considered by the 15-member commission, co-chaired by former Women's National Basketball Association star Cynthia Cooper and Stanford University Athletic Director Ted Leland, would require schools to conduct regular surveys of female and male students' interest in competing in sports. Athletic opportunities would be pegged to the survey results. That idea also has drawn sharp opposition.
"What interest surveys tend to reflect is the amount of past discrimination, not the interest that would be manifested if women had been given more opportunities in the past," Samuels said. "It is somewhat akin to saying women should be given the right to vote only if they were asked and said they wanted it."
Other recommendations contained in the draft report conform more closely to current Title IX enforcement practices. One would permit a 5- to 7-percentage point difference between the proportion of female athletes at a school and the percentage of women in the student body. Others would require that colleges have about the same percentage of female athletes as do the high schools in their region.
There is also a proposal that calls on the U.S. Department of Education to move more quickly to sanction schools found to be out of compliance with the law. While the department fields scores of complaints every year and often threatens schools with penalties, no school has ever been denied federal funding for noncompliance.
The report also proposes phasing out the regulations that allow schools to comply by increasing athletic opportunities for women.
The commission is scheduled to hold a two-day meeting in Washington next week to vote on the draft recommendations, which will then be forwarded to Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige. Paige will then decide which, if any, to adopt.
Title IX prohibits schools receiving federal funding from discriminating in all educational programs, including athletics, on the basis of gender. Before the law's enactment in 1972, fewer than 30,000 women participated in intercollegiate sports programs sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association; by 2000, nearly 151,000 women were NCAA athletes. At the high-school level, the number of female athletes increased from 294,000 to nearly 2.8 million during the same time period.
But some also blame the law for a sharp decline in low-profile men's athletics. The law has withstood repeated legal challenges. But a lawsuit filed last year by the National Wrestling Coaches Association has brought new attention to its impact on men's sports programs.
In their lawsuit, the wrestling coaches contend that 355 men's college athletic teams, and 22,000 spots on those teams, have been eliminated over the past decade. The wrestling coaches have asked a federal court to invalidate Title IX, saying it imposes quotas and illegally discriminates against men.
Other critics of Title IX say it is a good law that is poorly enforced and poorly understood.
"The unfortunate truth is that Title IX has evolved into something never intended," Carol Zaleski, former head of USA Swimming, told the panel during hearings in Colorado Springs last year. "The act was intended to expand opportunity. . .the evolved enforcement has turned it into a quota program. Title IX is a good law with bad interpretation."
But supporters of the law say critics blame it for problems it did not cause. The elimination of some men's athletic programs, they said, is the result both of flagging interest in those sports and the fact that some athletic departments overspend on sports such as men's football and basketball. Even with the changes wrought by Title IX, women account for just 42 percent of collegiate athletes, and women's programs receive 32 percent of the recruiting money and 36 percent of overall athletic funding in schools with major sports programs.
Moreover, they say, an estimated two-thirds of the schools that comply with Title IX do so not by showing that they have a proportionate share of female athletes, but by demonstrating that they have increased opportunities for women.
"If you are seeking equality, seek equality. If you fall a little short of the mark, you fall short of the mark," said former senator Birch E. Bayh (D-Ind.), the chief sponsor of Title IX. "But to say in advance you really don't have to get equality, that falls short of the intent of Title IX."