Connecticut’s Quinnipiac College, best known for its political polling, is now at the center of the newest round in the controversy over Title IX and women’s sports. In a trial that opened last week, a federal judge must decide whether competitive cheerleading should count as a sport for gender equity purposes. The case illustrates the complexities — and some would say, the inanities — of the debate over gender and college athletics.
In March 2009, Quinnipiac announced that it was eliminating several athletic programs, including women’s volleyball, due to recession-related budget cuts. On the other hand, the school added a new team to its women’s sports roster: a competitive cheerleading squad. Women’s volleyball coach Robin Sparks and four team members sued claiming a violation of Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, which prohibits sex discrimination at educational institutions receiving any federal funds. The team got a temporary lease on life pending the outcome of the lawsuit. Meanwhile, Judge Stefan Underhill has granted the suit class action status, so that, if violations are found, remedies could be ordered for all current and future female athletes at Quinnipiac.
Last year’s budget cuts did not spare the male athletic teams at Quinnipiac. Men’s golf and outdoor track were dropped along with women’s volleyball, with no reprieve or reversal. (As for men’s volleyball, the college never had it in the first place.) Other men’s teams were forced to downside their rosters — in the case of soccer, from 29 to 23 players, much to the coach’s disgust. Some would say that, when two men’s teams are cut while women lose 11 slots on the volleyball team and gain 30 on the cheer squad, it is not the women who should be complaining.
Of course, the question is whether competitive cheering is a “real sport” or not. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) still does not recognize it as a varsity sport, though there is a push to change that next year. Still, college cheerleading in the 21st Century has come a long way from the stereotype of sexy girls shaking their booty and boosting the boys: it requires high levels of athleticism and technical skill and features national competitions. Most of the young women on Quinnipiac’s cheer squad are top-grade gymnasts.
Indeed, one might argue that the denigration of cheerleading, very much in evidence from the plaintiffs’ side in the Quinnipiac case, reflects a mindset that feminists have usually deplored: heaping scorn on an activity simply because it is associated with a traditional feminine role. In one blog discussion of the lawsuit, some posters openly admitted that their primary problem with cheerleading as a varsity sport was its historically sexist connotations. Some also suggested that it should be recognized under another name, with no more performing on the sidelines during games — which brings to mind H.L. Mencken’s wisecrack about puritans haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere may be having fun.
The trial in Bridgeport has brought to light other Title IX issues, including allegations that the college had a pattern of manipulating its sports participation data to ensure compliance with the law: artificially inflating the numbers of female athletes while undercounting the men. The competing and convoluted claims and counterclaims bring to mind the infamous medieval theological debates about how many angels — or, perhaps, heavenly cheerleaders? — can dance on the head of a pin.
The reason for these intellectual gymnastics is that Title IX’s guarantee of equal opportunity has been interpreted as requiring that roughly equal proportions of male and female students participate in varsity athletics. The other two ways a school can satisfy legal requirements is to show that it is expanding opportunities for the “underrepresented sex” — that is, women — or fully and adequately accommodating its interests and abilities. These criteria, however, are so vague that proportionality is by far the most common test applied.
The concept of gender equity as gender parity, however, presents an obvious dilemma. It is an open secret that, for whatever reasons — cultural, biological, or a mix of both — women generally tend to be less interested than men in competitive athletics. (No one cries discrimination because male students are substantially underrepresented in college art programs or literary magazines.)
As a result, colleges have sought to achieve proportionality less by increasing athletic opportunities for women than by reducing them for men. The less profitable male college sports programs such as track, tennis, golf, swimming, rowing and wrestling have been decimated. Title IX in its current interpretation doesn’t even take from Peter to give to Paula — it just takes from Peter.
This problem is so widely recognized that even novelist John Irving, a strong women’s rights proponent, called for the proportionality test to be discarded as unjust in a 2003 New York Times op-ed. At the time, there were 17 female applicants for every slot in varsity sports and 18 male applicants. Since then, the dismantling of men’s teams has continued. Yet a recent recommendation by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to use campus surveys to determine the true level of interest in varsity sports among men and women met with intense hostility from women’s sports advocates.
Compounding the problem, the official approach to gender parity now requires more than half of college athletic slots going to women: 56% of college students nationwide are now female, and at Quinnipiac the number is 62 percent. Perhaps it is time for the federal bureaucracy to reconsider which sex should count as “underrepresented” in higher education.