What is Title IX?

Published on September 10th, 2019

Athletic programs are considered educational programs and activities. Title IX gives women athletes the right to equal opportunity in sports in educational institutions that receive federal funds, from elementary schools to colleges and universities. While there are few private elementary, middle school or high schools that receive federal funds, almost all colleges and universities, private and public, receive such funding.

The penalty for non-compliance with Title IX is withdrawal of federal funds. Despite the fact that most estimates are that 80 to 90 percent of all educational institutions are not in compliance with Title IX as it applies to athletics, such withdrawal of federal moneys has never been initiated. When institutions are determined to be out of compliance with the law, the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) finds them “in compliance conditioned on remedying identified problems.”

Title IX requires that every educational institution have a Title IX Compliance Coordinator. The OCR is the primary agency charged with its enforcement. However, to date, this agency’s enforcement efforts have been inadequate. Any person, regardless of whether they have been harmed by failure of the educational institution to comply with the law, may file a Title IX complaint with the OCR which is obligated to investigate such a complaint within a specified time period. The person filing the complaint may request that his or her identity be kept confidential. Individuals who have been harmed by failure of the institution to comply have an individual right to sue under the law and almost 95% of such lawsuits having to do with athletic program violations have been successful.

There are three parts to Title IX as it applies to athletics programs: (1) effective accommodation of student interests and abilities (participation), (2) athletic financial assistance (scholarships), and (3) other program components (the “laundry list” of benefits to and treatment of athletes). The “laundry list” includes equipment and supplies, scheduling of games and practice times, travel and daily per diem allowances, access to tutoring, coaching, locker rooms, practice and competitive facilities, medical and training facilities and services, publicity, recruitment of student athletes and support services.

Title IX compliance is assessed via a total program comparison. In other words, the entire men’s and women’s programs are to be compared, not just one men’s team to the women’s team in the same sport. This broad comparative provision was intended to emphasize that Title IX does not require the creation of mirror image programs. Males and females can participate in different sports according to their respective interests and abilities. Thus, broad variations in the type and number of sports opportunities offered to each gender are permitted.

Title IX does not require equal expenditure of funds on male and female athletes. The only dollar for dollar expenditure requirement is in the athletic financial assistance area, where schools are required to spend dollars proportional to participation rates. Thus, if $200,000 is awarded in athletic scholarships and the participation ratio of male to female athletes is 50/50, $100,000 must be awarded to female athletes and $100,000 must be awarded to male athletes. In other areas, the equality standard is one of equal opportunity.

With regard to Title IX’s participation requirements, a school can meet the standard via three independent tests. The first test is a mathematical safe harbor. If the school offers athletic participation opportunities (number of individual athlete participation slots, not numbers of teams) proportional to the numbers of males and females in the general student body, the school meets the participation standard. If the school does not meet this mathematical test, it may be deemed in compliance if it can (1) demonstrate consistent expansion of opportunities for the underrepresented gender over time or (2) show that the athletic program fully met the interests and abilities of the underrepresented gender. The courts have ruled that “boys are more interested in sports than girls” is not an acceptable defense to lack of equitable participation opportunities.

Under Title IX there are no sport exclusions or exceptions, so football is included under the law. Individual participation opportunities (numbers of athletes participating rather than number of sports) in all men’s sports and all women’s sports are counted in determining whether a school meets the Title IX participation standard. The basic philosophical underpinning of Title IX is that there cannot be an economic justification for discrimination. The school cannot maintain that there are revenue production or other considerations that mandate that male athletes receive better treatment or participation opportunities than female athletes. A good analogy would be that a school cannot say that it cannot afford to provide wheelchair access for students with physical disabilities as required under the Americans With Disabilities Act because the football team needs the money in order to maintain its current level of revenue production. Similarly, a school cannot say that it cannot afford to provide participation opportunities for an underrepresented gender.

It is also important to recognize that Title IX does not require the reduction of opportunities for male athletes in order to increase opportunities for female athletes. Schools that choose this manner of compliance are not meeting the spirit of discrimination laws, which is to bring members of the disadvantaged group up to the participation or benefit levels of the advantaged group rather than to bring male athletes down to the current level of poor treatment or no opportunity to play experienced by female athletes. If athletic budgets do not increase and schools desire to maintain current levels of participation for male athletes and increase participation levels of female athletes, the solution is to give all teams a smaller portion of the budget pie.

Typically, athletic departments have refused to “tighten the belt” of popular men’s sports like football, and have cut men’s non-revenue producing sports instead and blamed it on Title IX. Three points should be made in this regard: (1) it is dysfunctional to “pit the victims against the victims” — men’s non-revenue sports against women’s sports, both of which have been traditionally underfunded, (2) over 80% of all college football programs and almost all high school football programs lose money, and (3) nothing negative would happen to men’s revenue-producing sports if their budgets were decreased across the board with all schools and all teams lowering expenditures simultaneously so the playing field is kept level. In fact, football expenditures have continued to increase at rates higher than inflation. For example, according to National Collegiate Athletic Association gender equity studies comparing 1992 and 1997 budgets, average per school dollar increases to Division I-A men’s sports operating budgets over the last five years were three (3) times the increases to women’s sports operating budgets (men=$1.37 million/women=$400,000). Sixty-three percent or $872,000 of the $1.37 million amount went to football. Further, the $872,000 increase in football budgets exceeded the total average operating budget amount spent on all of women’s sports ($662,000/yr) by more than $200,000.

While there are considerable misconceptions and inaccuracies surrounding the discussion of Title IX as it applies to athletic programs, it is important to understand the basic premise of the law: Title IX is an important federal civil rights act that guarantees that our daughters and sons are treated in a like manner with regard to all educational programs and activities, including sports.

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Submitted for publication in the Encyclopedia of Women’s Sports, August, 1998.