When the University of Delaware announced it was downgrading the men’s varsity track and cross country programs to club teams earlier this year, the administration said the decision was to keep the school in compliance with Title IX, the 1972 federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding.
“With so many teams and the rising costs necessary to operate an intercollegiate athletics program of this magnitude, we were simply faced with a challenge to uphold our commitment to gender equity," David Brond, vice president of communications and marketing at the university, said in a press release in January. “While this was a difficult decision, this action demonstrates the University’s commitment to the equity principles embodied in Title IX.”
But a coalition of industry insiders, former athletic directors, legal experts and the school’s now dismayed male runners are raising concerns that Title IX was not the primary factor at play. Instead, some argue the athletic department’s move was more a fake punt for the Blue Hen’s rising football program than a strategy to attain gender equity.
The decision is under further scrutiny now that UD's Office of Civil Rights is in mediation with the university's administration, a result of men's track team members filing their own Title IX complaint that argued their athletic rights are being violated.
“I don’t think this [the cuts] is a decision that should be applauded,” said Ellen Staurowsky, professor and chair of the Graduate Program in Sport Management and Media at Ithaca College and the former director of athletics at William Smith College.
“The fact that they’re [university administrators] being so general in their explanation would suggest to me that Title IX is being scapegoated here,” she added. “I do think that what’s going on is that more of these resources are getting funneled into the football budget.”
University officials announced the changes only in January, so Staurowsky’s theory is unsubstantiated by subsequent funding data. Furthermore, the university has declined to comment on its motivations.
UD is but one example of a handful of schools that have cut lower-profile men’s teams over the last decade by citing Title IX but inspiring suspicions that funding and football may have played a bigger role. The Colonial Athletic Conference, in which the Blue Hens compete, has seen similar cuts to lower-profile varsity men’s programs at other schools recently. Towson University cut four men’s teams in 2004 and James Madison University, eliminated seven in 2006. Outsiders questioned whether Title IX was being scapegoated for primarily fiscal necessities, especially in the JMU case, which prompted a countersuit against the university.
There’s nothing illegal about citing Title IX as a primary decision-making factor when it may be secondary to funding limitations or attempts at bolstering a football program. The football question is even further muddled by the fact that a successful team like UD’s can contribute money to the rest of the athletic department, and last year the program netted just under one million dollars.
Yet some worry that when schools say Title IX forces them to make cuts to men’s programs—especially if Title IX may not necessarily be the only factor—such announcements breed resentment against the legislation or against female athletes whose opportunities are still underrepresented at the collegiate level.
“Blaming Title IX is like blaming a younger sister for family expenditure of resources,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation and herself a former Olympic swimmer. “Men have been around for longer, but do you give the older child more resources just because he's older?"
In UD’s press release, Director of Athletics Bernard Muir said the dual challenges of keeping the university in compliance with Title IX and the difficult fiscal climate had tied the school’s hands: The two men’s teams had to go.
“We explored every avenue in search of alternatives to this action,” said Muir. “We found ourselves facing two options: Either we had to continue the periodic expansion of programming for women in order to be responsive to their interest and ability, or adjust the current offerings to provide equitable and substantially proportionate participation opportunities for our men and women. Continued expansion of our Athletics program is not feasible in this financial climate, and given that reality, the University made the only decision it could.”
Yet the university’s ongoing $22 million addition to the student-athlete center and last year’s $2.8 million athletic fundraising effort has some critics raising eyebrows about the fiscal responsibility argument, especially when track and field is one of the least expensive sports. In the 2009-2010 academic year, the men’s outdoor track program had an operating expense of $35,589 and the men’s cross country program cost $13,951.
In response, UD's track and cross country teams are attempting a blitz of their own. They have filed suit with the school's Office of Civil Rights alleging sex-based discrimination, a complaint that the agency has agreed to investigate. Currently the teams and the university are in mediation, and neither the Office of Civil Rights nor the university will comment about the ongoing procedure.
But the spurred runners will quickly point out what they perceive to be hypocrisy at the university level.
“It’s not Title IX,” said Corey Wall, a senior and the co-captain of the outdoor track team. “Their plans are to continue to get rid of teams like swimming and tennis and get down to the teams they care about [like football and basketball].”
The school has made no indication that it plans to eliminate other sports, but the 15,786-person campus does already offer a low number of athletic opportunities—both for men and women—relative to its undergraduate population. Last academic year, fewer than four percent of students competed at the varsity level, although the school boasts a wide range of club-level and intramural sports programs.
Universities can demonstrate compliance with Title IX in three ways: by having the proportion of women to men competing in athletics match the undergraduate population; by demonstrating a history of expanding opportunities for women; or by proving that women’s athletic interests are accommodated.
At the time of the cuts’ announcement, UD was not under investigation for being out of compliance. But like the bulk of U.S. colleges, the school had fewer female athletes than male. In the 2009-2010 academic year, 287 women competed compared to 338 men at a school whose overall undergraduate population was 58 percent women, according to the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis.
According to the university, the cuts to men's cross country and track bring its proportionality levels into compliance, and a new women’s golf program will also be added in the fall.
These changes may sound like good news for women athletes at UD, especially golfers. But emerging research suggests that even when schools cut men’s programs in the name of Title IX, the freed-up money rarely flows straight toward the female locker rooms.
Kevin Renshler, a professor at the College of Business at the University of South Florida, has found that cutting men’s teams decreases the ratio of funding disparities between men and women’s programs but doesn’t automatically add to the women’s teams budget.
“Women are still often getting the same amount of dollars from year one to year two,” Renshler said, referring to the years before and after cuts of men’s sports teams. “So that doesn’t change how the women operate at all by cutting those two sports.” Renshler’s broad-level research has focused on more than 330 Division I institutions that have added or eliminated teams since 2003, and he noted that his work is not University of Delaware-specific.
Back on UD’s campus, some students most affected by the cuts say they have not blamed Title IX. Instead, they direct their frustration toward the school and what they perceive as hypocrisy surrounding the cuts and the overall allocation of resources.
“We feel they misused Title IX for some other reason,” said Corey Wall, the track co-captain. “I don’t think there’s resentment between boys and girls… I’ve been here for four years, and there’s always been resentment between the football team and us. We get $75 toward a pair of shoes, which doesn’t even cover the whole cost, and we see the football team getting warm-ups, shoes, everything.”
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