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Title IX missile on collision course with football arms race

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The Obama administration announcement that it is stepping up enforcement of Title IX, the law that requires equal gender opportunity at any educational institution receiving federal funding, and the possible expansion of the Big Ten Conference appear to be separate stories. But soon enough, they will become one.

That’s because colleges are going to have to reconcile two differing mandates: providing fair representation, opportunity and funding for female and male athletes, and plowing every dollar possible into football in for what for most schools will be a vain hope of creating an athletic cash cow. Not for nothing have the lords of football and their protectors fought numerous times, including soon after Title IX was passed in 1972, to exempt football from the law.

The Obama administration, trotting out Vice President Joseph Biden for the grand announcement, on April 20 said it would increase enforcement of Title IX (technically, since 2002, the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, named after the late Hawaii representative who created it), and that it would rescind a George W. Bush-era rule that gave  schools more leeway with “model surveys” as a means of proving compliance.

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Since 2005, schools could use email surveys of women to determine athletic interest, and could use a lack of response to indicate a lack of interest. Now, my wife is an Internet consultant for associations, and her line of work, a 10 percent response rate for a member survey is considered golden. So the possibility existed that women’s actual interest in sports would be skewed way downward, one of the many reasons the NCAA was against the Bush approach, and why so few schools implemented it.

Biden announced that the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which enforces Title IX, will still allow the use of surveys, but that a nonresponse can’t be used to indicate lack of interest. (If you want to read the full scope of the tests used to ensure schools are in Title IX compliance, it’s here.)

Even those who aren’t the biggest Title IX fans will say the law has been a great success in expanding opportunities for women. On the college level, we’ve gone from a time when schools openly admitted to requiring women to have a higher grade-point average than men for admission to women representing around 55 percent of college graduates. There were 30,000 female college athletes in 1972; now, there are 150,000. (Just in case you’re wondering how girls’ youth sports became as cutthroat and mercenary as the boys’.)

However, the argument against Title IX is that men’s opportunities have remained static — and in many cases have been eliminated — as schools used quota systems to prove compliance, turning men in nonrevenue sports such as wrestling and gymnastics into would-be Allan Bakkes, arguing their opportunities were sacrificed unfairly on the mantel of supposed gender equality. Title IX, in its own language, declares that opportunities should not be a zero-sum game. However, even if Title IX hasn’t been the real reason a men’s sport has been eliminated, it would be logical to think it’s entered the conversation at some point.

Testimony about declining men’s opportunities is present throughout a 2003 Bush administration report on Title IX  (titled, tellingly, “Open for All’) that helped bring about its changes in approach, and the 2008 Republican Party platform stated that Title IX “should not be distorted by Washington bureaucrats to micromanage collegiate athletics or force cancellation of men’s sports programs.”

The Title IX opponents don’t like when you bring up raw numbers, but I’m going to bring them up anyway. Despite all the progress made over the last 40 years, and despite all the cuts made to men’s sports, women are 55 percent of college students, but 43 percent of athletes. In high school, the gap is 49-41 for women — meaning boys are 51 percent of students and 59 percent of athletes.

And what is skewing these numbers? For the most part, football.

With 85 scholarships at the Football Bowl Series level (formerly Division I-A) and 63 scholarships at the Football Championship Series level (formerly Division I-AA), football by miles has the largest rosters and the largest representation of athletes. Throw in nonscholarships walk-ons — who count in Title IX computations — and the numbers grow higher. The American Football Coaches Association has fought against Title IX pretty much from its infancy, and four times Congress has considered bills to exempt football from Title IX. All have failed.

The argument for all the attention and money on football is that it supports the rest of the athletic department. However, that’s usually not true. Football does usually stay in the black, but not enough to underwrite losses elsewhere — that’s covered by student fees and general fund contributions. Plus, it’s getting harder for more schools to keep their football financial heads above water. The average salary of an FBS head football coach jumped 46% from 2006 to 2009, to $1.6 million. Even if most of it is paid by boosters and sponsors, not the athletic department, it’s still reflective of an arms race for coaches, facilities and whatever else can attract the nation’s best football players and turn a woebegone program into the next Boise State.

This is where the Big Ten’s possible expansion comes in. It’s all about football (and a little bit about spreading its cable property, the Big Ten Network). Adding to the 11 teams in the misnamed Big Ten means that the conference can have a conference championship game, more teams in the postseason bowls, and the geographical reach to negotiate a larger network television contract. (Commissioner Jim Delaney said April 21 that expansion would not happen for 12 to 18 months, at least — but it’s coming.)

The Big Ten’s move would spark another round of conference reorganizations, starting with the Big East. That once-powerful basketball conference, now at 16 members, could lose Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Notre Dame (a member in every sport but football) to the Big Ten, and perhaps have other powerful football members like West Virginia poached by other conferences as well, leaving it mostly with private schools with no football — and frozen out of the Bowl Championship Series elite.

What this is creating is a one tier of elite football programs and conferences, and everyone else, who are going to have to look at cutting football (if they have it) not only as a means to keep Title IX compliance in tight financial times, but mostly as a way to keep its athletic department solvent in tight financial times.

The College Sports Council, a passionate spokesorganization when it comes to what it sees as the (mostly) men-hurting excesses of Title IX, has already blamed Title IX for the elimination of football at Hofstra and Northeastern, and it says more FCS schools could have football in their sights. After all, at the FCS level, football really doesn’t make any money.

The Big Ten expansion highlights a growing gap between the football haves and have-nots, and schools left on the outside will have to decide if football is worth the money. Throw in the garnish of more aggressive enforcement of Title IX, and you could have the ingredients of football’s demise at some institutions.

I’m not saying Title IX would be the real reason for cutting football. I’m just saying, it would be logical to think it would enter the conversation at some point.

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