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"It really wasn't considered a big deal at the time," Sandler, often called the godmother of Title IX, said in a recent interview. "We didn't really think of it as a sports thing, and the sports people weren't watching and didn't know it covered them. Title IX's passage in 1972 got one or two sentences in the newspaper the next day."
The language of the law is simple: no person should be excluded, on the basis of their sex, from participating in educational programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance.
Not long after, lawyers for the N.C.A.A. informed its members that Title IX applied to opportunities in intercollegiate sports. At the time, according to a General Accounting Office report, 30,000 female undergraduates at American colleges participated in athletics, compared with 248,000 men.
Members of the N.C.A.A. and the powerful American Football Coaches Association sat down with women's advisory groups and government officials to hammer out regulations for enforcing Title IX. Lopiano attended the meetings and remembers proposing that everything in college athletics simply be split 50-50. "The football guys just about fell off their chairs," Lopiano said. "They came back with a proposal that I think was an effort to retain a perpetual advantage."
Three options were devised to enable a college to show that it was in compliance with Title IX. A court case in 1995 established one test, proportionality, as the pivotal standard. The ratio of male and female athletes should be about equal to the ratio of all male and female undergraduates.
It is a simple test at its core. If a school's undergraduate population is 54 percent female — and that is close to the national average this academic year — then 54 percent of the athletes (scholarship and nonscholarship) who participate on intercollegiate teams should be women.
"But in the 1970's, most schools were about 65 percent male," Lopiano said, "and I think the coaches thought it would stay that way, so they would protect their huge football rosters. And I believe they were also convinced no women would come out anyway. We figured that participation was so minuscule then, going from 5 percent to 35 percent was enormous."
Even with Title IX, spending on men's sports at most colleges with big-time Division I-A football teams still outpaces spending on women's athletics by nearly 2 to 1. But swept along by many social factors, the number of women participating in college sports has jumped fivefold over the past three decades. The explosion in high school sports is even more pronounced. When Title IX was approved by Congress, 1 in 27 girls in high school played a sport. By 2000, the ratio was one in three.
Increasing the percentage of female athletes on campuses has involved many passionate skirmishes. It has led sometimes to tortured roster management, with the number of players on some men's teams capped, while some women's rosters doubled in size. And it occasionally produces tangled new guidelines for coaches and the unsettling elimination of some of the country's most prominent men's teams.
In the mid-1990's, U.C.L.A. suddenly did away with its men's swimming team, which had produced 16 Olympic gold medal winners. Iowa State dropped its three-time national champion gymnastics program. Providence College ended an 80-year tradition in baseball. After 91 years of football, Boston University gave up the sport in 1997.
The national gymnastics championships are now not much more than a large invitational, with only 22 colleges still competing in the sport. After Nebraska dropped men's swimming last year, the Big 12 Conference meet involved three teams.
When administrators, especially those at financially strapped state universities, blamed Title IX, either overtly or indirectly, for the elimination of men's teams, proponents of the law said it was being made a scapegoat for a natural evolution, an ebb and flow of popularity, within college sports — or for lazy management. "Shouting `Title IX' was the easy way out," Lopiano said, noting that some men's sports have surged in popularity, like soccer, which has added 143 teams in the past decade.
Nearly three-fourths of American colleges and universities increased female participation rates by simply adding women's sports without dropping men's sports. This has been especially true at smaller and wealthier institutions with large endowments. But even at the vast majority of these colleges, caps on men's team rosters have become the norm. Many men's coaches across the nation have been assigned fixed maximums: about 40 for track, 35 for baseball, 18 for gymnastics.
If a male student who was not recruited to run track decides he wants to try out for the team, he is often turned away. At Brown, it was understood that if a male student wanted to try out for one of the minor sports, he would be allowed to if he could recruit two women who would agreed to go out for a sport, several university officials said.
Bob Rothenberg, who spent 18 years as track coach at Brown, said he routinely discouraged male applicants to the university who inquired if they could come to the track when they arrived on campus.
"If it was a female applicant, we would explain how to find us and the track," Rothenberg said.
That's because most colleges, in the hunt for proportionality, frequently try to maximize their women's rosters. When it comes to track, this is especially true. That is because, according to N.C.A.A. procedures, a female runner who competes on the cross-country and the indoor and outdoor track teams counts for three athletes in the Title IX proportionality ledger.
The procedure may be harming men's track. Bowling Green, for instance, could slice as many as 80 men from its rosters this spring by eliminating indoor and outdoor track. Tulane will do the same to help remedy a significant imbalance in its ratio of male and female athletes. Vermont's ratio was more even, but dropping men's track saves roster spots for its featured men's sports: hockey, skiing, basketball and baseball.