Colleges and universities must have a roughly equal number of women and men playing sports, even if more men want to participate in athletics, according to a closely watched ruling that the Supreme Court let stand on Monday.
Over the protests of 60 colleges and universities, the high court rejected Brown University’s appeal of a ruling requiring strict sex equality in athletics. The rejection effectively means that schools nationwide must ensure that the total number of varsity positions for men and women matches their percentage in the student body.
“It’s the greatest single legal victory in the history of women’s sports,” said Olympic gold medalist swimmer Donna de Varona, a founding member and former president of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
But Brown’s lawyers argued that the disparity between the number of men and women athletes merely represented a difference of interests between the sexes, and not a case of discrimination. Some men’s coaches and college officials called the ruling unfair because it means men’s programs will be cut if the school can’t afford to fund new women’s programs.
No one disagrees, however, that the Title IX amendment has wrought a revolution in women’s athletics over the past 25 years. The amendment says simply that no person may be discriminated against “on the basis of sex” in schools or colleges that receive federal funds.
Today, nearly eight times as many women play high school sports as in 1972, and colleges have seen a similar, though less dramatic, increase. Nearly 120,000 women play college sports now, up from about 35,000 in 1972.
But college officials have disagreed on what constitutes equality or discrimination.
Since more men still play sports than women, some women’s rights advocates have said colleges still are not complying with the law. On the other hand, some athletic directors complain they have been forced to cut highly popular men’s teams in favor of women’s teams that draw fewer participants.
The case of Brown University tested the definition of equality and led to Monday’s decision establishing “gender parity” as the rule.
In 1991, Brown announced plans to end its funding for four teams: men’s golf and water polo and women’s gymnastics and volleyball. The move affected 37 men and 23 women.
The female athletes sued, contending the university was violating Title IX because it had fewer women than men overall playing sports. While there were 16 men’s teams remaining and 16 women’s teams on campus, 555 of its varsity athletes were men and 342 were women. The total student population was essentially half men and half women.
University officials said the gender disparity among its athletes existed because more men wanted to participate in sports.
But a federal judge in Providence and then the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston ruled that Brown had violated Title IX by dropping the two women’s teams.
The law demands a college maintain “gender parity between its student body and its athletic lineup,” the appeals court said.
If colleges do not have an equal number of men and women playing sports, they can still comply with the law so long as they are “continuing expanding athletic opportunities (for) the underrepresented gender,” the court said.
Because Brown had neither “gender parity” nor an expanding sports program for women, it was in violation of the law, the lower court said.
Groups representing most of the nation’s colleges and universities joined Brown in appealing the case to the Supreme Court. They said this approach creates “preferential quotas” that will force campuses to drop men’s teams in order to create equal numbers.
But proponents of women’s sports argue that females may not be as interested in athletics now, but if given the chance, their enthusiasm will grow. In their ruling, the appeals court upheld that view, saying: “Interest and ability rarely develop in a vacuum; they evolve as a function of opportunity and experience.”
These disagreements aside, the Supreme Court refused to take up the issue.
The justices often look to see if there is a disagreement in the lower courts, where most judges have followed the rule of “gender parity” in college sports.
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