A reader shared with me three separate stories about colleges that are adding lacrosse for men and women — Brevard College in North Carolina, Capital University in Ohio, and Rockhurst University in Missouri. Seems reasonable, you might think, that when adding a program, colleges would afford equal opportunities to men and women. The problem is, at all three of these institutions, women are seriously underrepresented in the proportion of athletic opportunities made available by the institution:
- At Brevard, women constitute 39.9% of the student body, yet receive only 30.5% of athletic opportunities — a gap of 9.4 percentage points.
- At Rockhurst, women constitute 59.4% of the student body, yet receive 47.1% of athletic opportunities — a gap of 12.3 percentage points.
- At Capital, women constitute 56.9% of the student body, yet receive only 38% of athletic opportunities — a gap of 18.9 percentage points!!
Adding a sport for both men and women, however fair it may seem through the shallow lens of just lacrosse, does nothing* to close these overall gender gap in athletic opportunities, which are some of the most egregious I’ve seen! For a school with such a serious gender gap to still add a men’s sports — even in the context of simultaneously adding a women’s sport — represents a missed opportunity to take a step in the right direction toward equality. The even-handed addition of lacrosse at Capital, for example, won’t change the fact that 22% of its male students have an athletic opportunity, compared to 10% of its female students. I don’t know how a school with numbers this bad, when it can clearly afford to add two sports, doesn’t decide to add two women‘s sport (and then go back to figure out how they can add even more).
Title IX, for its part, does not require equal opportunities within a single sport like lacrosse, but equity in the overall distribution of athletic opportunities. Thus, not only is there a serious fairness question about adding men’s sports when women are so seriously underrepresented, it’s also terrible risk management. Title IX compliance requires either (1) proportionality, (2) continuous women’s program expansion, or (3) no unmet interest among female students. In the short term, these schools have at most** bought time under prong two. But unless these schools are prepared to continue to add new opportunities in the future every few years, they will quickly fall out of compliance. What about prong three? My guess is that with such lopsided numbers, latent unmet interest is a ticking time bomb. It’s only a matter of time before a club team asks to elevate, or other evidence of unmet interest emerges — perhaps under the spotlight of an OCR investigation. When either the prong two or prong three chickens come home to roost, what will these schools do? Will they complain then that they don’t have the resources to add women’s teams? Will they be forced by their own bad planning to downsize a men’s team or two in order to satisfy the only prong that doesn’t require an investment of resources?
The Department of Education promulgated the three prong test in 1979. In an ideal world, colleges and universities would have from that point forward held their men’s programs steady while gradually adding opportunities for women (easily satisfying prong two) until opportunities were proportionally distributed. Then they could have moved forward, adding — or cutting — opportunities for men and women as resources allow or as changing enrollment requires. I don’t understand why this is so hard! College athletic administrators seem to labor in blissful ignorance of either the law, the changing demographics of college enrollment, or the economy — or maybe all three. I’m not rooting for these institutions to run into Title IX compliance problems — that’s not good for students. But if it happens, it will be hard not to say I told you so.
*To be fair, Rockhurst is also adding women’s cross country, but this hardly changes my point, since that single team would have to have over 90 athletic opportunities in order to even out the opportunities between men and women at that school.
** And even this is a generous assumption. The article about Rockhurst helpfully notes that 2005 was the last time a women’s sport was added. There’s no question: Rockhurst clearly doesn’t comply with prong two either.