Former National Wrestling Champion Stephen Neal is grappling with his toughest opponent yet. The 6-foot-5-inch 270-pounder racked up numerous awards during his four-year wrestling career at California State University at Bakersfield (CSUB): He was a four-time All American and an Academic All American, and he took home the Heisman Trophy of wrestling, the Dan Hodge Award. Yet the heavyweight, who graduated in 1999, burns for one more win -- not on a wrestling mat but in a court of law.
Neal's longest match started in 1996, when officials at CSUB announced plans to cut the wrestling team. It's not that the team wasn't performing. The only Division I sport at CSUB, the program had distinguished itself over the years, winning two PAC 10 championships and finishing in the top 10 in the NCAA finals three out of the previous four years. The problem had to do with "gender equity," the proportion of male to female athletes. Critics charged that CSUB, like many other colleges and universities, had too many men playing sports and was discriminating against women.
In 1993, when Neal was a junior wrestling at a San Diego high school, the California chapter of the National Organization for Women (CAL-NOW) was completing litigation against the California State University System, of which CSUB is a part. CAL-NOW claimed that the Cal State System discriminated against women in its athletics programs. A state superior court judge crafted a consent decree that gave individual CSU campuses five years to bring the gender breakdown of their student athletes and scholarships to within five percentage points of the breakdown in the student body. If a school's student body consisted of 55 percent women, then at least 50 percent of intercollegiate athletes needed to be women. On the financial front, total expenditures for men's and women's programs were to be within 10 percentage points of each other .
When he learned of the consent decree, CSUB wrestling coach T.J. Kerr knew he had a problem. CSUB's student body is dominated by women, 63 percent. And even though the school had seven women's teams and only six men's teams, men accounted for 61 percent of its varsity athletes. Kerr studied the issue and developed a plan, figuring that the way to comply with the court order was to expand opportunities. He took the initiative to start a women's wrestling team. "I started looking at the participation number of women wrestlers in high school -- it had doubled over five years," says Kerr. "I was thinking if I could get women on my team, I could leverage this thing." School administrators denied his request for women's wrestling, but Kerr went around them and started it as a club sport. Soon he had 17 women on his team. Two even competed for the varsity squad.
The cuts came anyway. In late 1995, CSUB's athletic director capped Kerr's squad at 27 men, and the coach was forced to cut 10 male athletes. Five former wrestlers filed grievances with the school, alleging sex discrimination. Then Kerr was told he could carry a total of only 34 wrestlers, forcing him to cut seven women. In 1996, on the eve of the PAC 10 finals and the Division I championships, the Intercollegiate Athletics Advisory Committee, which advises CSUB's president on athletic policy, announced plans to cut the wrestling program to meet the consent decree.
Enough was enough, thought Stephen Neal, who'd experienced the damage on a personal level: His roommate, a freshman walk-on, was cut from the squad. "He didn't know what to do. He was in shock," says Neal, adding that the roommate ultimately quit school. Neal, along with 21 male wrestlers and eight female ones, filed suit against CSUB in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California for sex discrimination.
The root of Neal's problem -- and that of thousands of male athletes across the country -- lies in the widespread push for gender equity in scholastic and collegiate sports. In California, Neal and hundreds of other male athletes have been affected by state law. Elsewhere, it's a federal law that's at issue: Title IX of the 1972 Amendments to the Education Act. Title IX sought to give women equal access to educational programs, including athletics. Now it's evicting men from the locker room.
There's no arguing that women didn't face a shortage of athletic opportunities in the 1950s, '60s, and early '70s. A year before Title IX's passage, only 294,015 girls played high school sports, compared to 3.7 million boys. "I was the classic tomboy growing up in middle America who played football, basketball, and baseball with my brothers and the neighborhood guys," recalls 50-year-old Mary Jo Kane, who teaches sports sociology at the University of Minnesota and directs the Tucker Center for Research on Women and Girls in Sport. "I lived to play those sports. But when I got to high school, there weren't teams available for me in those sports. So I did what a lot of girls in my generation did and started playing a more 'appropriate' sport, golf."
In the three decades since Title IX's passage, women's participation in school athletics has increased impressively. During the 1999-2000 school year, 2.7 million girls played high school sports, compared to 3.8 million boys, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. In 1998-99, 148,803 women played NCAA sports, up from 80,040 16 years earlier.
"In one generation, young girls have gone from hoping there is a team to hoping they can make the team. That's an incredible difference," says Kane, who credits Title IX and the hard work of women's sports activists for this change -- and who jokingly declares that she's never been a communist and still loves football. Women can now earn a living playing basketball in America. In 1999, the U.S. women's soccer team filled the Rose Bowl and captivated the country, beating China for a World Cup victory.
Still, Kane is frustrated with the pace of change. "Only 9 percent of Division I schools are in compliance," she says. "And that's 30 years after passage." Women still account for only about 35 percent of college athletes and garner less than a quarter of annual athletic operating and recruiting budgets.
Yet while the intent of Title IX was to provide opportunity for girls and women, today it is often applied in ways that do nothing but kill athletic opportunities for boys and men, an outcome no one claims to want. In the gender equity debate, few people blame Title IX itself, which, after all, seeks only to ensure equal opportunity for both men and women. Most women's sports advocates recognize there's a problem with cutting men's teams to equalize participation rates. But they blame the choices made by administrators who they say refused to restrain football programs. For their part, male coaches and athletes say they agree with the spirit behind Title IX. It's the rules promulgated by bureaucrats dictating hard gender-based quotas that are the problem.
Rhode Island's Providence College provides a vivid example of how Title IX often plays out. In the late '90s, Providence found itself in a familiar bind. Women accounted for 59 percent of its students, yet they were only 43 percent of student athletes. The school was facing a peer review by the NCAA, and it needed to show quick "progress" toward gender equity. Providence simply had too many male athletes, and the easiest course of action was to cut some men's programs to bring its numbers into line. In the fall of 1998, the administration announced that the 1999 season would be the last for the school's 78-year-old baseball team. After 2002, Providence would no longer support men's golf or tennis. Not one new women's team would be created, but the male-female ratio would still be greatly improved.
"Baseball, tennis, and golf were the three sports that, when you combine their resources together, delete them from the male side of the picture, [and] add those resources to the women's side of the picture, put...us in compliance with Title IX's proportionality mandate," explained Providence Athletic Director John Marinatto to the PBS special National Desk. School administrators had watched neighboring Brown University get sued and lose for not having its numbers right; they feared a similar lawsuit. "We just couldn't risk that kind of litigation," the Rev. Terence J. Keegan, Providence's executive vice president, told The New York Times. "We felt we were backed into a corner."