Sports Scene: What Does Title IX Require?

July 28, 2010

A Federal District Court has rendered an important judgment in a case involving the interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  Title IX forbids gender discrimination in higher education, and has its most important implications in athletics by requiring that colleges and universities give equal focus on men’s and women’s athletics.

I strongly support gender equity in athletics, and Earlham does, too, but this ruling gives me pause for worry.  The court found that Quinnipiac University, in Connecticut, failed to satisfy Title IX when it substituted competitive cheerleading for women’s volleyball in its array of sports offered.  I don’t know anything about the Quinnipiac case beyond what has been reported, and I certainly don’t know whether Quinnipiac acted in good faith in substituting cheerleading for volleyball.

It’s the judge’s reasoning that concerns me.  Here’s what Inside Higher Education reports: “[Judge Stanley] Underhill gave deference to a 2008 letter from the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights that outlines the standards an activity must meet to be deemed a sport under Title IX. Aside from having competition as its chief objective, a sport must be under the umbrella of a governing organization and have a defined season, set practices and coaches. In other words, it must resemble all other varsity sports at an institution in structure and operation.”

For one thing, his understanding (really, the Federal government’s understanding) takes the meaning of what constitutes a “sport” away from institutions of higher education, and gives it over to national sports organizations, whose goals and purposes are different, and often not very concerned with education.  I don’t like federal or state governments telling indepependent colleges how to educate, and for the same reasons I don’t “national sports organizations” telling us how to educate.

The standard set in this case is also quite conservative , it seems, in telling colleges and universities that they cannot be innovative or creative in what constitute a sport.

And finally, why must a “sport” always involve competition?  I support competitive sports for both men and women.  But why must a sport involve competition to satisfy Title IX?  Aren’t the ultimate hallmarks of a sport physical activity, practice, striving for excellence, cooperative effort and leadership?

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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