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The reawakening discrimination against women in sports

IN 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act provided this country's athletic administrators with an answer to the dispute between advocates of women's athletics, mostly affiliated with the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which oversees men's intercollegiate programs. The crux of that decision, simplified, was that programs could be separate but equal. The guidelines stated that ``no person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity operated by a recipient [institution] because of sex.'' Although this did not wipe out sexist attitudes, it did give male coaches cause to reevaluate some of their ingrained biases about women's sports and gave women an opportunity, with funds, to build respectable programs.

But the more recent Grove City College v. Bell decision, intentionally or not, has taken the teeth out of enforcement of Title IX. This, in turn, has opened the door for a reawakening of chauvinist attitudes that had been muted for a decade.

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The ``new'' sexism made respectable by the Grove City decision is not as blatant as before, but it's there just the same. Now ``legitimate'' reasons are given for conducting programs unequally. With new vigor, some athletic directors are dismantling teams, mostly women's teams, under the rationale that they are not self-sufficient because they generate little or no revenue.

These actions, in effect, may force women's sports back into the milieu of pre-Title IX days. During the past year, in fact, formerly quiet voices have unearthed old myths about gender. One of those was heard at the close of the NCAA Special Convention in New Orleans last June. An athletic director from a university in New England suggested, ``We're going to drop some women's programs as soon as possible. They don't bring gate receipts, and the [women] don't want to compete anyway.'

It was a reminder to me of the button game of yesteryear about boys growing up to be ``a rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief.'' And when the girls played, the chant was: ``When I grow up I'm going to marry a rich man, a poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief.''

I recall, too, when my athletically gifted sister suffered the plight of many young women by being forced to sublimate her energies into other, more accepted activities. The only real opportunities for her to exercise her skill in sport were during neighborhood play with boys.

Thirty years later, under Title IX, I joyed in those occasions when I could watch my daughter express herself through sport as an intercollegiate athlete of note at Bowdoin in squash and field hockey. I lament the threat to a granddaughter's opportunity for an equal chance to play. These and other sports are once again in jeopardy at many universities because ``they do not create revenue.''

There is a discouragement, too, for young women interested in coaching careers. More and more, colleges and universities are hiring male coaches for women's teams, because it is said: ``Men have more experience in recruitment,'' or ``Men hold the potential for additional assignments in coaching men's teams,'' and ``Women athletes need the discipline a man brings to organized teams.'' The excuses go on and on. Fewer women are being afforded opportunities to coach, so fewer are preparing for coaching careers.

Last spring I advertised in the NCAA News for a women's track coach at Pomona College. Applications from 54 candidates were received, but with a sparse response from the thin ranks of women coaches.

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Even during the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, signs abounded that sexism in sport is alive and well. For example, the 3,000-meter run and the marathon were first-ever events for women in 1984, and both were resisted as additions by Olympic moguls until the American Civil Liberties Union brought suit and adverse publicity to the games.

Only then did the Olympic committee agree to include these events, drawing this pious comment from one committee member: ``Another innovation I really like is that we've added to women's sports in these games . . . without being asked.'' Rubbish!

Resistance to the additiion of the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs is almost certain to follow for the 1988 games in Seoul.

Interestingly, media coverage of the Olympics, which heavily featured men's events and Mary Lou Retton, seized upon the Zola Budd/Mary Decker collision in the 3,000-meter run and the grotesque staggering finish of Gabrielle Anderson-Schiess in the marathon as the highlights of women's Olympic activity. Comparably little attention was given to the brilliant accomplishments of other women in competition.

A recent physical education handbook for a prominent Eastern coeducational institution described the general aims of the program thus (italics mine):

To provide a program of safety for all men as the highest priority.

To educate him in rules, skills, strategies, conditioning, and sportmanship.

To help development of his highest levels of potential.

To provide an enjoyable experience for all participants.

The statement looked like wording borrowed from yesteryear's guidelines and recycled into a new handbook. But I was amazed that someone had not picked up on that obvious accident of language.

From a historical perspective, 19th-century thought held to the view that a woman's body, even her mind, was not intended to be spent in fun-related experiences like athletic competition.

Hers were the functions of childbearing and homemaking. Is it possible that recent indications of exclusivity in sport might restore such primitive thinking to the roles of women in our society?

I doubt that we shall again see those days in total, but it is disturbing that in the 1980s there is evidence of backsliding in the opportunities offered to women in sport.

A new President's Commission of the NCAA has already made giant strides toward a housecleaning of corrupt activities in college sport.

That same commission, composed of those persons most attuned to the educational needs of students in our colleges and universities, also needs to keep an eye on athletic programs that are quietly eroding the gains made under Title IX in equal opportunities for women in sport.

Curtis Tong, director of athletics at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and former coach of women's tennis at Williams College in Massachusetts, is writing a book about ethical issues facing college coaches and athletes.

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