Friday, February 29, 2008

College Sports Council Cites Lack of Proportionality at Historically Black Colleges

The College Sports Council (no fan of Title IX) earlier this week released a study about Title IX compliance at historically black colleges and universities. The results: 73 out of 75 of HBCUs fail the proportionality prong of the three-part test. This means that for nearly all HBCUs, the percentage of athletic opportunities for women is lower, in some cases much much lower, than the percentage of women on campus. According to CSC President Eric Pearson, "The purpose of this study is to show that schools like the HBCUs that want to attract more male students run into a virtual roadblock when it comes to complying with Title IXs proportionality standard...The CSC calls on the NCAA to support HBCUs use of surveys to comply with Title IX. HBCUs need the flexibility that surveys offer, if they want to use sports to increase male enrollment."

First, I think that some context is required to better frame the story of proportionality problem among HBCUs. According to a recent Women's Sports Foundation study, 87% of colleges and universities are not within three percentage points of proportionality. So while the nonproportionality rate among HBCUs is quite high (97%), it is important to remember that the vast majority of all colleges and universities are also out of compliance with that prong.

Next, I think CSC overstates the consequences of failing to comply with the proportionality prong. Proportionality is not the only way to satisfy Title IX. Most schools that don't satsify this prong (which is to say, most schools) are in compliance or claim they are in compliance under prong three: effectively accommodating the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex. In the absence of a decision by a school to (a) cut a women's team or (b) turn down a request to add a viable women's team, there is very little reason to doubt such claims.

So why is the CSC arguing that HBCUs should have the NCAA's blessing to use interest surveys? Without getting in to the controversial aspects of the interest survey methodology that OCR endorsed in 2005 (WSF does a fine job of that here), I'll just say that an advantage of using the interest survey is, from a school's perspective, that it provides concrete, statistical evidence of compliance with prong three. This evidences give schools the confidence to add more sports for men -- even when those additions compound already existing inequities in the distribution of athletic opportunities. The CSC wants the NCAA to bless a practice that would (lawfully, to be sure) result in HBCUs making even fewer athletic opportunities available to female students.

It seems to me that this argument exploits HBCUs for their tendency to invoke support, thus strategically pitting race against sex in CSC's larger project of challenging proportionality and Title IX. The subtext of its press release is that if you are for HBCUs (i.e., if you are not a racist) you must be against Title IX. But the CSC's argument that HBCUs should have the NCAA's support in eluding proportionality trades in both racial and sexist stereotypes. Most obviously, the argument that HBCUs in particular need to offer sports to attract male students suggests that the only way to get black men to college is to offer intercollegiate sports. It also assumes that prospective female HBCU students are uninterested in, or undeserving of, athletic opportunities in comparable ratios to their male counterparts. HBCUs should be working just as hard as other schools to eliminate gender disparities in their athletic departments. The NCAA should continue to encourage all schools, including HBCUs, to forgo interest surveys and strive for gender equity.