A national commission yesterday decided on a broad menu of recommendations designed to clarify the way colleges and universities can comply with Title IX, but backed away from the most dramatic proposals for altering enforcement of the law that bans sex discrimination in collegiate sports.
One recommendation considered by the Commission on Opportunity in Athletics would have allowed schools to allocate as few as 43 percent of the slots on their varsity sports teams for women and still comply with the law, even though women make up 55.5 percent of college enrollments. But the commission first softened that proposal and ultimately deadlocked 7-7 on the issue.
While it brushed aside the most sweeping proposals to change the system, it still endorsed a package of recommendations that would offer schools new latitude in apportioning athletic opportunities and scholarships between men and women.
One recommendation would allow schools to use surveys to determine the level of interest men and women on campus have in varsity athletics. Those findings could then be used to gauge a school's compliance with the law.
The panel also endorsed the idea of having schools determine the number of roster spots on each team that would count toward compliance with the law. And it backed a recommendation that would exclude non-traditional students -- generally those over age 23 -- from any calculations used to determine the proportion of female athletes at a school.
Currently, the schools count the actual number of athletes participating in a sport in calculating gender proportions for athletes, a practice that critics says encourages schools to limit male athletes who "walk on" to sports teams without scholarships, or to pack some women's teams with athletes who rarely compete.
"I think these recommendations will be very helpful," said Brian Jones, general counsel for the U.S. Department of Education. "Clearly, there is a consensus that something needs to be done to clarify Title IX."
The recommendations are not binding. Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige, who will receive the report by the end of next month, will determine how enforcement of the 31-year-old law should be altered -- if at all. The law is credited with dramatically increasing female participation in collegiate and high school sports.
Leaders of women's groups that oppose any changes to how the law is enforced were angered by the panel's recommendations.
"We are deeply troubled by the commission's action," said Jocelyn Samuels, vice president of the Washington-based National Women's Law Center. "This authorizes the secretary of education to radically restructure current practices. . . . The proposals recommended are every bit as damaging as any that have been put on the table."
Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, said, "The commission has opened the barn door for the Bush administration to weaken Title IX. This gives the education secretary license to do pretty much anything he wants."
Should the recommendations be adopted by the Bush administration, Lopiano said, female college athletes could lose $103 million to $122 million annually in scholarship money.
But those pressing for the Bush administration to make a change in the enforcement of Title IX said they were heartened by the commission's recommendations.
"We are encouraged by the broad-based consensus that there should be a change," said Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, which filed a suit last year challenging federal enforcement of Title IX. "We're confident there will be a more fair and reasonable interpretation of the law, one that protects women without hurting men."
Paige appointed the commission last June to examine ways of strengthening Title IX, while dealing with complaints that the law forced some schools to provide new athletic opportunities for women at the expense of men.
Under the current enforcement regime, colleges and universities can show compliance with the law in three ways: by having a proportion of male and female athletes that is roughly equal to the number of men and women in their student bodies; by demonstrating a history of adding sports opportunities for women; or by proving that they are meeting the interests and abilities of the women at their school.
Many advocates of women's sports oppose any changes to the so-called "three-part test," saying it creates a strong incentive for colleges and universities to increase the number of athletic scholarships and other sports opportunities that go to women, while offering schools sufficient flexibility.
Before Title IX was enacted in 1972, fewer than 30,000 women participated in intercollegiate sports programs sanctioned by the NCAA; by 2000, nearly 151,000 women were NCAA athletes. The law, which applies to all educational programs that receive federal funds, also has had a huge impact at the high school level, where the number of female athletes increased from 294,000 to nearly 2.8 million during the same time period.
The lawsuit filed last year by the National Wrestling Coaches Association brought new attention to the law's impact on men's sports programs. The coaches association says nearly 400 men's college athletic teams in low-profile sports, such as wrestling, swimming and gymnastics, have been eliminated over the past decade, largely because of the way the federal government enforces Title IX.
That concern drove much of the panel's work. In addition to its recommendations on the ratio of males and females in campus athletic programs, the panel proposed that the Education Department consider limiting how long a school could comply with the law by simply improving opportunities for women without coming close to parity with men. The commission also recommended that the government come up with ways schools can comply with the law beyond the three-part test.
"I believe the commission has provided guidance on a number of key issues," said Graham Spanier, the president of Penn State University and a member of the panel. "I think we conveyed a strong theme of the need for additional clarity in the law and stepping up enforcement. I believe we offer some common sense ideas about flexibility."