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Originally published July 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 18, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Guest columnists

Title IX turns 35, yet hasn't reached its prime

Thirty-Five years ago, Title IX became law, removing long-standing sports barriers for girls and women by outlawing gender discrimination...

Special to The Times

Thirty-Five years ago, Title IX became law, removing long-standing sports barriers for girls and women by outlawing gender discrimination in all federally funded educational institutions. Simply put, Title IX requires that boys and girls have equal opportunities to participate both in the classroom and on the playing field.

The key to the success of this law is enforcement. Individuals, teams, organizations and communities committed to equal opportunity must make sure their schools are complying with Title IX.

Female athletes and coaches at Washington State University did just that by filing a lawsuit in 1979 against WSU for limiting funding for women's sports teams and, therefore, participation by female athletes. The courts ultimately ruled that the school's athletic department had to distribute funds equitably across all sports teams.

WSU has come a long way. Tennis legend Billie Jean King, founder of the Women's Sports Foundation, recently honored it with an "Opportunity Award" for making gender equity a priority. "We are still underrepresented, but we're getting there," noted King.

Since Title IX's inception, women's participation in college sports has jumped from 30,000 to 170,000, and, in high-school sports, from 300,000 to 3 million. Female athletes earn higher grade-point averages and report higher self-esteem than their nonathletic classmates. They also are more likely to graduate from college and less likely to drop out of high school or use drugs. Increased physical activity also translates into a reduced risk of several life-threatening diseases, including breast cancer, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Given these benefits, it is not surprising that an overwhelming 82 percent of Americans support Title IX, according to a recent Mellman Group survey. Yet, women's resources still lag behind men's. Though women comprise 53 percent of students at Division I colleges, they comprise only 44 percent of athletes and receive only 37 percent of overall amounts spent in support of athletics, 32 percent of recruiting dollars and 45 percent of scholarship monies.

A few vocal opponents continue to complain that Title IX comes at the expense of men's sports teams. But, to the contrary, Title IX neither mandates any quotas, nor does it dictate budgets, staff hires or any other aspect of athletic administration. Schools do not have to make the budgets or team sizes numerically equal. In fact, the federal agency that enforces Title IX discourages any cuts to men's sports. Schools are required only to allocate "participation opportunities" in a nondiscriminatory way.

At the heart of Title IX is expansion, not reduction. Rather than replacing the tradition of male sports teams, female athletes enrich athletic departments, add to their schools' reputations and inspire girls to be active. And, since 1972, the number not only of females but also boys and men playing high-school and college sports has increased.

Mechanisms such as more tuition waivers for student athletes would even the playing field for all athletes, men and women. Also, 75 percent of the athletic budget for Division I men's teams goes to football and men's basketball. The majority of Division I football teams actually lose money — $800,000 to $1 million a year on average. Setting more realistic allocations for football and men's basketball would free up funds for other men's and women's teams.

At the K-12 level, more state money for monitoring school compliance will also help eliminate inequities in participation opportunities. Today, a single staff member at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is charged with monitoring all schools, statewide, for their compliance with Title IX and state law on gender equity in schools.

A key obstacle to achieving broader participation and enforcement of Title IX is lack of information. The Mellman Group found that while nearly one-quarter of Americans personally knew of recent unfair treatment of female athletes, nearly 60 percent would not know how to take action under the law.

A new campaign seeks to help people who think their school is not complying with Title IX. Go to www.FairPlayNow.org for information on improving and ensuring opportunities at the K-12 level.

Every girl deserves the chance to play sports and receive equal treatment. Title IX is a flexible law, intended to expand opportunities, not punish institutions. It affords all young women and men an opportunity to participate in activities that keep them safe, healthy and successful, in school and throughout their lifetimes — a true win for society.

Lisa M. Stone is executive director and Janet S. Chung is a staff attorney at the Northwest Women's Law Center, an advocacy organization based in Seattle.

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