Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Strike IX profiles the 1999 Providence College Baseball Team

When author Paul Lonardo contacted me about his new book Strike IX, I worried I might be in for another misplaced Title-IX-is-the-enemy screed from an advocate for men's sports. But after reading a copy of the book, which Paul kindly sent me, I learned that Strike IX is the story of the athletes on the 1999 Providence College men's baseball team who went on to have the season of their lives after the college announced its decision to cut the program. Strike IX is a compelling underdog story about athletes playing for pride, playing for the love of the game when there's no tomorrow, when the "only thing left to do is to go out and win the whole $*!@ thing!" Under these circumstances, the 1999 Providence College baseball team produced the best season record in the program's history and a Big East conference championship. It was, in sum, a good sports story.

The only problem I had was the title. Calling the book Strike IX creates the impression that Title IX was to blame for the college's decision to eliminate the team. And the chapter in the book that discusses the relationship between Title IX and PC's program reduction could have done more to clarify the statute's role. I have two specific critiques. First, while the author appropriately notes that PC made its decision to terminate baseball in the wake of the Title IX litigation involving Brown University, he leaves the impression that the decision created PC's obligation to comply with Title IX. Rather, the regulatory standard that Brown so gloriously unsuccessfully challenged in the early 1990s had been on the books since 1979. Unexamined in Strike IX was what Providence College's compliance approach had been since then. With twenty years to play with, did the institution seek to equalize men's and women's athletic opportunities gradually, so as to avoid a drastic approach like cutting teams? Or did PC behave cavalierly, like many colleges did, and exacerbate inequities by continuing to grow men's sports without first bringing women's sports up to level? It's true that Title IX limits school's choices about which teams to cut when that school fails to provide proportionate opportunities to begin with. But PC's decisionmaking prior to 1999 is what created that disproportionality, and some of that should have been in the book.

My second critique is that the author accepted too quickly PC's rhetoric about why it thought it had to satisfy the proportionality standard (and thus, to do so by cutting a men's team) rather than to claim compliance with prong three. Prong three recognizes that even disproportionate athletic offerings (like PC's at the time) can still comply with Title IX, as long as there is no demonstrable unmet interest among members of the underrepresented sex (i.e., women). Generally, an institution does not have a problem with prong three unless they (1) decide to cut a viable women's team (which PC did not do) or (2) reject a proposal from a women's club team to elevate to varsity status. Thus, if PC had been receiving and rejecting requests to elevate women's teams to varsity status, its claims that it "had to" comply with proportionality might ring true. But if not, it's more likely that the university was using Title IX to scapegoat its decision to engage in program reduction that it had made for others. Title IX prohibits schools like PC from making existing disproportionality worse through program reduction, which is why PC couldn't cut a women's team once it decided to cut teams, but it does not require a school to engage in program reduction to begin with. In PC's case, then, the decision to cut baseball was likely less related to Title IX than the college would have us think. That's the reality I would have liked to read about in Strike IX. Unfortunately, that doesn't lend itself to a clever book title.