Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Disappearing Opportunity In Men's Sports

By Virginia Reed

Earlier this month, one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time, Baltimore’s own Michael Phelps, cheered for his friend and mentor Ray Lewis at Super Bowl XLVII. Millions cheered along with him. Amid the cheering, many had already begun to ask who the next Ray Lewis will be. But with Michael Phelps, the question is different. It isn’t who will be the next Michael Phelps but whether there will be another Michael Phelps. The likely answer isn’t something to cheer about.

The prospect of there being another Michael Phelps is dim because colleges are cutting men’s athletic programs. As a former NCAA Division I college swimmer, I’ve observed first hand just how critical the college stage is for most Olympic swimmers. But for men, these programs are disappearing rapidly.

While Phelps’ original Michigan team remains for now, two other teams in Michael Phelps’ Big Ten conference have been recently cut. Additionally, his 2012 Olympic teammate Scott Weltz’ college program was cut less than two years after Weltz graduated. UCLA cut its men’s swimming program in 1994 after producing over 22 Olympic swimmers. The Division I team I swam on at Rutgers cut their men’s program in 2006 despite bringing two swimmers to Olympic trials in 2004. My sister’s University of Miami team cut their men’s program in 2000 despite having two Olympians on the team at the time. Even the University of Maryland, with two swimmers at Olympic trials in 2012, cut their men’s team just last year. These cuts are just part of a larger trend that, according to NCAA data, has is seening over 60 men’s college swimming programs cut in the last 30 years.

The force behind this trend is the need for compliance with Title IX. Title IX was a well-intentioned part of the Education Amendments of 1972, designed to encourage gender equality in all extra-curricular activities. The original purpose of the law was to end gender discrimination in schools receiving federal funds. Indeed, many women's sports teams have been added since the rule’s inception, and women’s participation in college athletics has steadily increaseed up to the present day. However, more recent compliance guidelines for athletic programs have caused significant cuts in men’s athletic teams. This alarming trend frustrates the law’s purpose.

The problems began in 1979 when the Office of Civil Rights gave college athletic programs compliance guidelines in the form of a three -prong test. The first prong of the test set up a proportionality requirement , and the second and third prongs mandated that schools consider interests of and opportunities for the under- represented sex. Because proportionality is the most easily measured prong, it’s is the primary focus of enforcement. It is also the primary cause of problems.

Under the proportionality requirement, schools must have the number of athletes by gender in the same proportion as their overall student population. This means that if 60% of the student body is female, then 60% of the school’s athletic positions and scholarships must be for women. With women now increasingly a majority at most universities, men’s athletic teams are being cut in order to comply with the proportionality requirement of Title IX.

Swimming is not the only team sport impacted by the proportionality requirement. The University of Maryland cut their track team less than a month after Maryland’s track coach Andrew Valmon’s lead the 2012 US team to Olympic gold. Since 1972, 355 men’s college wrestling teams have been cut, along with 212 men’s gymnastics teams. In total, more than 2,200 men’s collegiate athletic programs have been cut since Title IX proportionality requirements began. The impact of these cuts on men’s Olympic performance is clear. In the 2012 games, U.S. women’s teams won gold medals in soccer and in water polo and won a silver medal in volleyball. Yet the traditionally strong men’s teams didn’t win a single medal in any of these sports for the first time in 12 years. The 2012 Men’s Olympic team had 50 fewer Olympic qualifiers than 2008. Because college programs feed the Olympic teams, this downward trend in the Olympics will likely continue as more men’s college programs are cut.

Many supporters of Title IX recognize this negative trend. In response, Nancy Hogsehead-Makar of the Women’s Sports Foundation suggests schools “ re-prioritize their athletic budgets” and cut back football programs. However, this solution doesn’t account for the profits brought in by football teams to athletic departments. In a 2012 interview with Game Changers Live, Kathy Deboer, Executive Director of the American Volleyball Coaches association, says most Division I football teams have earned increasing profits. She explained that “in the last 10-15 years the amount of profit has skyrocketed due to television deals.” These profits are used to fund both men and women’s programs.

At the same time, eliminating football to satisfy the proportionality requirement doesn’t address the differing interest levels in playing college sports. Kathy Deboer notes, “We know a lot more about women’s interest in playing sports than we did in 1972…if you just throw a bunch of kids out there, boys and girls mixed evenly, there’s going to be more boys that are interested in participating in competitive activities.” The lack of recognition of varying interest levels leads to unfair results. Leo Kocher, University of Chicago wrestling coach, explains, "If they have 100 girls who want to play sports and they have 1,000 boys who want to play sports, the law says you must give opportunities to those 100 girls and 100 opportunities to those 1,000 boys. In the end, 100 percent of the girls are fully accommodated, but only 10 percent of the boys are taken care of." This uneven level of accommodation seems inconsistent with the Title IX goal of equality.

Still, rational approaches to ensure equal athletic opportunities for women and men do exist. One possible solution is to suspend the proportionality requirement in favor of a student-interest based approach. The student-interest approach involves assessing the desire and likelihood of a student population to participate in sports. From that assessment, schools then design equitable athletic opportunities for men and women. After a specified amount of time, an independent body evaluates colleges to determine whether they have created equitable athletic opportunities in accordance with the second and third prong of Title IX. A student-interest approach is essential to determine that genuine opportunities are offered to all potential participants.

Genuine opportunity is more important now than ever as more and more men’s teams are being cut. In the face of disappearing men’s programs, Kathy Deboer asks the inevitable question, “Is there going to be another Karch Kiraly? Is there going to be another Dan Gable?” Indeed, where is the next Michael Phelps? The future is uncertain. However, the image of Michael Phelps among the thousands of cheering fans suggests an increasingly likely answer:— the next great male athletes are sitting right next to us with no place to play.