With endowments shrinking, donations falling and operating budgets squeezed, colleges and universities face great pressure to cut costs. Athletic departments are an obvious target. But, troublingly, men's sports are disproportionately bearing the brunt.
This year, men's programs across the country have gotten the third-strike call: swimming and soccer at Kutztown University (Pa.); baseball at the University of Northern Iowa; football at Western Washington; wrestling at Delaware State, Portland State and Carson-Newman. MIT, which has one of the largest athletic departments in the nation, eliminated men's teams in gymnastics, ice hockey, golf, wrestling, alpine skiing and pistol.
Even in cases where a women's team was eliminated alongside a men's team - as happened when baseball and softball were cut recently at the University of Vermont, soccer and volleyball were dropped at the University of Maine, and men's track was cut along with women's swimming and diving at Pepperdine - the men's teams had the larger roster.
From these wrenching choices an equally difficult question arises: Why are more guys being taken off the athletic field while the women mostly play on?
A big part of the answer is that the federal law governing collegiate athletic opportunity, known as Title IX, is indifferent to economics. Rich schools and poor, large and small, those with high-profile programs or without - all must abide by the law's strict enforcement regime or face federal investigation, the wrath of trial lawyers or both.
Typically, compliance means applying a quota standard called "proportionality" - where schools must maintain the same ratio of men and women on the playing field as in the classroom. So, when Quinnipiac University tried to cut two men's teams and one women's team earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the school on behalf of the women (the guys were left on the sideline). A federal judge rebuked Quinnipiac and reinstated the women's team. The same day, a third men's team, indoor track, was dropped.
Even in the long, contentious battle over the application of Title IX, there seems to be grudging agreement that a worsening economy makes gender equity a more imposing hurdle. Last fall, the president of the NCAA began warning member institutions that in a troubled economy, eliminating teams may be inevitable. Law professor Erin Buzuvis, a contributor to the "Title IX Blog," explained last November that "no one is denying that Title IX operates once the decision to make cuts has been made."
But as legal action groups and gender activists are riding to the rescue of women's sports, there appears to be no similar savior for men's athletics. Although the law promises equal protection for both sexes, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has so far been silent on the cuts to men's teams. Parents, coaches and athletes would be right to ask: Aren't male athletes facing discrimination if their teams are being singled out?
Duncan wouldn't have to look far to fairly approach the question of allocating roster slots. In 2006, the Education Department offered schools an alternative compliance method: Survey the student body and then provide athletic opportunity based on the students' expressed interest.
Although that method would, at long last, give students a direct say in the way scarce athletic resources are apportioned, the NCAA immediately wrote to its members, warning them not to adopt it. Gender activist groups followed suit, suggesting they would sue schools that attempted a survey. The NCAA's patronizing response to students was that "(it) permits schools to use surveys alone ... as a means to assess female students' interest in sports."
As many coaches could attest, young female athletes are determined - perhaps more so than the NCAA imagines. A hearty cheer would surely rise from student athletes if the education secretary were to simply say: Take the survey, and the Education Department will support your choices. Athletes know that something is out of whack when women's scholarships and roster spots vastly outnumber those of their male teammates in the 15 sports in which both genders compete. Is it too much to ask that men and women should have the same scholarship opportunities in the same sports?
Congress made Title IX law more than 37 years ago. A lot has changed for men and women on campus since 1972. Most colleges are worrying about how to attract and retain more male students, not the other way around. The law was meant to ensure fairness for both sexes, and that is not what is happening.
H. Clay McEldowney is a director of the College Sports Council, a Washington-based coalition of coaches, athletes, parents and fans that seeks to reform Title IX and to promote the student athlete experience.