Sad news: An Oregon judge has rejected a last-ditch lawsuit challenging the University of Oregon’s decision to discontinue men’s wrestling as a varsity sport as of last June. Although Oregon Circuit Judge Lynn Ashcroft, stated in his Oct. 22 opinion that the university’s decision to drop men’s wrestling was not “‘gender’ based”—rejecting a claim that the 54-year-old program was a casualty of the funding quotas that many universities have put in place in order to comply with federal and state requirements that they devote equal resources to men’s and women’s athletics—it’s pretty clear that Title IX of the federal Civil Rights Act, whose draconian interpretation by the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights has led to the demise of more than 250 Division I wrestling programs since 1972, is an “un-indicted co-conspirator,” as the blog Saving Sports described it, in the demise of men’s wrestling at Oregon.
What is particularly poignant about the Oregon story is that the university’s wrestling program had been made famous by the novelist Ken Kesey, who died in 2001. Kesey had been a champion wrestler for Oregon during his undergraduate years in the mid-1950s, and a wrestling injury that made him ineligible for the military draft allowed him to enroll in a graduate writing program at Stanford University where he wrote most of his best-selling 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Both of Kesey’s sons (one is now deceased) wrestled for Oregon, and the Kesey family had helped spearhead a futile drive this past spring, which included more than $2 million in alumni pledges, to keep the wrestling program at Oregon alive.
Title IX, passed in 1972 for the laudable purpose of ensuring that colleges not discriminate against female students in their offerings, including sports, has been interpreted to spell disaster for men. Title IX, which requires colleges to treat men and women equally as a condition of receiving federal aid, initially seemed like a good idea. Then along came the Office for Civil Rights of the Jimmy Carter administration’s Education Department. That agency decided (without any input from Congress) that in order to comply with Title IX, colleges had to fulfill one of three criteria: 1) the numerical proportion of athletes of either sex had to be roughly equivalent to the numerical proportion of undergraduate member of each sex enrolled in the college as a whole; 2) the college demonstrate a commitment to building women’s sports programs; or 3) the athletic interests of women were sufficiently accommodated. In 1996 the Bill Clinton administration’s Office of Civil Rights stiffened the proportionality rule.
Criteria #2 and #3 are kind of vague, so most colleges and universities have opted for the easier task of complying with #1, which is crystal-clear but essentially sets up gender quotas for sports funding as a prerequisite for receiving federal funds. The situation is further complicated by the fact, that (as #3 hints), it’s men, not women, who gravitate toward the competitive varsity team sports—football, basketball, wrestling, you name it—that are the bread and butter of college athletics and the sports at which Title IX enforcers typically look when deciding whether the proportionality rules have been met. Although some team sports are popular with women students—basketball, lacrosse, and water polo come to mind—women by and large prefer to get their exercise via solitary or noncompetitive athletic activities such as running, aerobics, yoga, and dance.
So colleges, faced with the Sisyphean task of complying with gender quotas by trying to build up female sports programs in which there is little female interest–even when they shower female athletes with scholarships–have engaged in two different strategies for jumping through the Title IX hoops. One is to invent new varsity sports catering to female interests, such as “competitive cheerleading,” introduced at the University of Maryland in 2004 and a godsend to college athletics directors with Title IX headaches. As might be expected, the doctrinaire feminists who have pushed Title IX most rigorously look askance at competitive cheerleading. In a 2004 interview with the New York Times, Mary Jo Kane, a sports psychologist at the University of Minnesota called the new sport a “Title IX end-around” likely promoted “at the expense of other more traditional sporting opportunities for women,” by which she meant the team sports that Title IX enthusiasts seem to prefer.
The other Title IX strategy, particularly appealing to colleges with limited budgets for any kind of sport, is simply to kill off men’s programs, in a trend that has accelerated in recent years as women came to make up the majority of college undergraduates (they’re now 56 percent). And the men’s programs colleges have cut are almost never the campus moneymakers such as a football and basketball, but niche sports such as swimming, gymnastics, baseball, or wrestling that attract minimal news coverage and fans and thus can’t pay their own way. In 1999 the New York Times carried an article about the near-disappearance of college baseball, a stunning casualty of Title IX. Yet efforts to impose a more realistic interpretation of Title IX—such as a new rule by the Education Department in 2005 that would allow colleges to comply with #3 instead of #1 by assessing female students’ interest in athletics via e-mail—have been roundly criticized by feminist organizations such as the Women’s Sports Foundation.
And this leads us back to the sad story of the demise of wrestling at the University of Oregon. As Saving Sports, a Title IX-reform blog pointed out in March, the university’s decision to drop wrestling in 2007 coincided with its announcement that it planned to add competitive cheerleading to its roster of varsity women’s sports, as well as baseball for the men. In his court opinion, Judge Ashcroft called the timing of the various announcements “purely coincidental.” Yet two things had happened at the same time: the addition of a women’s sport that probably wouldn’t exist were it not for Title IX mandates and a zero-sum game between two economically marginal men’s sports that have both been casualties of Title IX. Wrestling fans at Oregon probably have little legal recourse right now, except to hope to persuade university authorities to bring back the sport of one its most famous alumni, Ken Kesey, and to ponder the unfortunate consequences of an ultra-ideological interpretation of Title IX that insists that the two sexes and their interests are interchangeable.