The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has given universities a new online tool to prove they offer women adequate sports opportunity, triggering anxiety in some quarters and relief in others. Some civil rights advocates charge the Bush administration is undermining a landmark anti-discrimination law. One coaches group says the new approach will protect men’s sports.

The federal government has created a web-based survey that schools can use to show they are accommodating the athletic interests and abilities of women on campus. Schools have long been able to comply with the Title IX law by proving they have met the sports interests of women, but never before has the government endorsed and promoted a way to measure that.

ED officials say the new survey will allow schools to scientifically gauge whether they must expand or create women’s teams to meet demand. But critics contend the tool opens an enormous opportunity for schools to avoid responsibility under the law.

Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex at any school that receives federal money. Enforcement has been politically touchy, but the debate has quieted since the Bush administration opted in 2003 not to change Title IX rules after months of review.

Under the new plan, schools are encouraged to periodically survey all full-time undergraduates–or at least all of the underrepresented sports gender, presumably women.

Schools also are advised to conduct the survey in a way designed to generate a large response, such as by eMailing students and following up.

If the online survey responses from students show insufficient interest in women’s sports–or if students don’t bother to answer at all–schools can presume they are in compliance. The new tool thus could have a major influence over how schools deal with the law.

Until now, many schools have complied by ensuring that their percentage of female athletes is proportionate to female enrollment, often creating new teams. Schools can also comply by showing a pattern of expanding opportunities for women.

The new guidance has drawn rebukes from Title IX advocacy groups.

Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, called the reliance on a web-based survey a “perverse effort to undermine the law.”

“Who responds to eMail surveys, period?” she said. “I think it’s really irresponsible, and it’s giving schools the easy way out.”

Judith Sweet, a top NCAA official, said a survey easily could misrepresent the interests and abilities of women in sports, which tend to grow once opportunities are provided.

“We are concerned with anything that potentially weakens Title IX, and it appears that this new clarification has the likelihood to significantly do that,” Sweet said.

The guidance, posted on ED’s web site March 18, began to generate attention among lawmakers, too. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said he was concerned it could narrow sports opportunities for women.

ED officials said the survey is optional and fulfills an agency promise to give universities more information about how to comply. The new guidance is based on a review of more than 130 civil rights cases between 1992 and 2002.

“Ensuring equal opportunity is a critical part of the department’s mission,” said James Manning, who oversees civil rights for the agency. “It’s one of our highest priorities. & Nothing is changing that.”

Title IX has been credited with dramatically increasing opportunities for female athletes. But some sports advocates welcome ED’s new approach, because they say universities have been cutting men’s programs rather than adding women’s programs to avoid running afoul of the law. The new guidance reiterates that Title IX does not require reducing or eliminating men’s sports.

Eric Pearson, chairman of a group of coaches and athletic groups known as the College Sports Council, praised the department’s move. “There’s finally a viable alternative to the gender quota,” he said. “We’re glad & common-sense reform has finally arrived.”

The Clinton administration allowed schools to use surveys, but only as one of several measures to gauge women’s interest in sports.

Links:

Education Department Title IX guidance
http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/title9guidanceadditional.html