A judge's ruling that federal laws against sex discrimination do not apply to interscholastic and intercollegiate sports programs that do not receive direct federal aid drew a swift and angry response yesterday from the women's athletic establishment.
"It is the personal interpretation of one federal district judge out of 900 of what Congress intended. And it is the wrong interpretation," said Robin Gordon, a poject staff member of the National Organization of Women's (NOW) legal defense and education fund.
"The judge seems to be some kind of a Lone Ranger," said Ann Uhlir, executive director of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). "His decision nullifies all the guidelines we've been getting from the government. It's an overwhelming reversal of the present situation."
The target of their criticism was a ruling in Michigan Monday -- but made public Wednesday -- by U.S. District Judge Charles W. Joiner that Title IX, the federal law mandating equal opportunity for men and women in college and scholastic athletics, "extends only to those educational programs or activities which receive direct federal financial assistance."
The decision was made on a lawsuit seeking a golf team for girls at an Ann Arbor public school, but the judge's language, if affirmed on appeal, would have far-reaching implications for the collegiate athletic powers, who long have argued that self-supporting sports programs should be exempt from federal regulation.
"That (Joiner's decision) is what the NCAA has contended all along," said Robert Frailey, athletic director at American University. "Philosophically, you've got to agree with Title IX. It's motherhood, apple pie and everything else. Title IX has done a lot toward raising consciousness about women's athletics.
"But when you're talking about some of these big football programns, they've got to be able to plow money back into the program, not distribute it all around. That's good business. If you don't do it, the program suffers, and you lose business. I tend to agree with the NCAA position. I think it was the right decision."
Donna Lopiano, AIAW president and director of women's athletics at the University of Texas, said her association likely would involve itself in any appeal of the Michigan ruling.
"Our contention is that athletics are an educational activity and educational activities are covered by Title IX," she said. "If one department in an institution gets federal money, then that frees up money for other departments so everybody really benefits."
Margaret Dunkle, director of the Health Equity Project, an organization that, among other things, monitors enforcement of Title IX, said the decision has implications that ultimately would extend beyond athletics.
"Title IX is based on Title XI of the Civil Rights Act," she said, arguing that a narrow interpretation of the scope of Title IX's coverage could lead to a similarly narrow interpretation of the scope of activities covered by civil rights legislation.
"This decision has to be appealed," she said, "not just from a legal point of view but from a practical point of view. There are thousands of people in this country who do not want to see the clock turned back on athletic opportunities for their daughters."
A spokesman for the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education said the judge's decision was under review.