Advocacy groups and NCAA officials are criticizing new federal guidelines that make it easier for colleges to demonstrate compliance with the Title IX anti-discrimination law credited by some for dramatically boosting women's participation in athletics.
Schools can now use a new e-mail survey to demonstrate that they are fulfilling the requirements of the law, according to the new guidelines, which were posted with little fanfare on the Department of Education's Web site late last week. Schools will be considered in compliance with Title IX legislation, which forces all schools that receive public funding to provide equal opportunities for men and women, if survey responses suggest there is insufficient interest among women students to support a particular sport.
NCAA President Myles Brand said in a statement that an e-mail survey would not provide "an adequate indicator of interest among young women" in college sports. The new guidelines, he added, "will likely stymie the growth of women's athletics and could reverse the progress made over the last three decades."
Department of Education officials defended the new guidelines, arguing they conform with existing practices and do not represent a policy change.
The e-mail surveys suggested in the guidelines are merely "an option for colleges," said James F. Manning, assistant secretary of education for civil rights. He said that in the past, the department has accepted college and university surveys of their student populations as evidence of compliance with Title IX obligations.
Interest in women's sports has grown substantially since 1972, when Congress adopted Title IX as part of an educational reauthorization package. According to the National Women's Law Center in Washington, fewer than 32,000 women competed in intercollegiate athletics when the law was passed. Three decades later, nearly five times as many women were participating.
Schools are considered in compliance with Title IX if the number of female athletes is proportional to the number of women in the school's student population. Another way of complying with the law is for a school to show that it is "fully and effectively accommodating the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex."
Exactly how a school proves that has been left somewhat vague in the past.
Leslie Annexstein, director of the legal advocacy fund for the American Association of University Women, said e-mail surveys would provide a far "too narrow" gauge of interest in women's sports. "If you only talk to existing students, and ignore the interests of prospective students, then your college will become stagnant," she said.
Advocacy groups also criticized the failure of the Department of Education to invite public comment on the new guidelines before posting them. Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said public consultation was "not required" as "this is not a policy change." She said the Bush administration "strongly supports Title IX."
Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center, said that the Education Department had "made it easier for colleges to evade their obligations under the law."
But Eric Pearson, chairman of the College Sports Council, a group of college coaches that wants restrictions on Title IX, praised the department's move. "We are now passing an important milestone toward protecting athletes from the ravages of the artificial quota system called 'proportionality,' " Pearson said.