Despite protests by women's advocacy groups, a Bush administration panel moved Wednesday to ease a federal policy that has been praised for increasing women's athletic opportunities and blamed for the demise of many men's teams in low-profile college sports such as wrestling, swimming and gymnastics.
Opening a two-day session on the controversial Title IX program, an advisory commission to the Department of Education asserted colleges should no longer be forced to cut back on men's teams in order to narrow the gap between male and female athletic programs.
Title IX, passed in 1972 as an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities at institutions that receive federal funding. It was intended to increase opportunities for women in science laboratories and law schools, as well as on athletic fields.
Many schools have been dissolving long-established men's teams and straining to create new women's varsity teams as they attempt to provide athletic participation for men and women that is in proportion to their enrollment.
In the most publicized example, 138 colleges dropped their wrestling programs between 1982 and 2001 -- largely, coaches contend, because of Title IX. During the same period, women's rowing programs, which can have rosters of as many as 60 athletes, have boomed.
The panel, set up in response to a lawsuit college wrestling coaches filed against the Department of Education, took no definitive action Wednesday. It will meet again today to outline specific recommendations, which will be presented to Education Secretary Rod Paige.
Eric Pearson, chairman of the College Sports Council, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, stressed that his group did not want to see Title IX abolished, only clarified.
"We definitely want the law to continue to protect women from discrimination, but we also don't want it to harm men," Pearson said.
The law has had a dramatic effect on women's participation in athletics on both the high school and college levels. In 1971, the year before Title IX was passed, about 294,000 girls took part in high school sports; by 2001, that figure had risen to more than 2.7 million.
At the college level, women's participation in sports sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. has more than doubled in the last 20 years, from about 74,000 in 1982 to more than 150,000 in 2001.
By contrast, men's participation at the high school level remained steady, showing only a 1.54% increase from 1971 to 2001. On the college level, participation grew by 23% from 1982 to 2001, according to the NCAA.
Educational institutions can show compliance with Title IX in one of three ways. The first and most controversial of the considerations is whether the school provides athletic opportunities for men and women that are "substantially proportionate" to their respective enrollments -- for example, if the school is 55% female, then close to 55% of its athletic opportunities must be for women.
The other two ways concern whether the school can demonstrate that its athletic programs are responsive to women's levels of interest and athletic ability -- criteria that even proponents of Title IX agree are hard to measure.
"The current enforcement of Title IX entirely depends on proportionality," Pearson said. "Unfortunately, it's created a quota system that was never intended by the law in 1972."
However, women's advocacy groups attribute much of the growth of women's sports opportunities at colleges to Title IX, and fear that colleges will backslide if given the chance.
"I think it's a transparent attempt to undermine Title IX," said Lisa M. Maatz, who is director of public policy at the American Association of University Women and who was among the protesters outside the meeting. "It's really sad when we use civil rights laws
The commissioners -- largely athletic directors, educators and athletes -- were divided about whether opportunities for men have increased or decreased in recent years.
"It's clear that many men's teams have gone away," said Thomas B. Griffith, general counsel and assistant to the president at Brigham Young University, which has dropped its wrestling program.
He said that sports such as wrestling, swimming and gymnastics were hardest hit and that "nobody anywhere is adding men's teams, in any sport, except perhaps soccer."