Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Title IX in the News and Associated Random Ramblings

The U.S. Supreme Court expanded today the role of Title IX, the Civil Rights legislation which requires sex equality in education:

A sharply divided Supreme Court expanded the reach of the landmark Title IX anti-discrimination law today, ruling that it protects people from retaliation when they complain about sex bias against others.

"Reporting incidents of discrimination is integral to Title IX enforcement and would be discouraged if retaliation against those who report went unpunished," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for a 5-4 majority.

It's fascinating that most everybody thinks Title IX is only about college sports. In fact, it's about equal access to all education, and as such it is a very important law for us womenfolk. The sports bit is actually pretty trivial from this wider point of view, but it's the one the media always talks about.

Even this case is about sports: It concerns the male basketball coach of a girls' team in an Alabama school. He argues that he was punished for complaining about the lesser access to resources his team had when compared to the boys' teams. A commenter on Pandagon (go and read Amanda's excellent take on this topic) appears to argue that this is fair because women's sports in general don't make as much money as men's sports.

Similar arguments fly about whenever Title IX is mentioned, together with arguments about how women don't want to play ball anyway and so on, and how unfair it is that schools cancel programs such as men's or boys' wrestling to make room for women's and girls' sports which nobody wants to practice. In other words, we are diving straight into the deep and muddy waters of what is innate and what is dependent on culture and what damage feminism is causing to the society and how great it is that the U.S. women win most everything in the Olympics because of Title IX. I don't really want to go there today. But let me just point out that the majority of men's sports don't make any money, either. Only a few do, mostly football and basketball in the schools with the best teams.

What interests me today is this: What are school and college sports for? The answer to this question is crucial in deciding how Title IX should be interpreted, but I rarely see anything written on this topic.

Suppose that such sports are for education. They increase the students' physical and mental health, keep them from getting led astray, teach leadership and teamwork skills. If this is the case then it's hard to see how we could argue that girls and women should not be given the same opportunities as boys and men.

If, on the other hand, sports are for the purpose of making money and gaining the school fame, the most rational solution would be to treat the players as workers, for example, to pay college football players a fair wage and other benefits. These workers would not have to be students at the institution though of course they could be if they had the academic preparation and time that are required.

Maybe sports have some of both of these roles and maybe that's why it is so difficult to agree on what equality of access means. But I think that college sports, in special, are also seen as amenities; like having access to a spa or chilled drinks and a blow-dryer in your hotel room. Some people wish to have these amenities and are willing to pay more for hotels which offer them, others don't care for them and go elsewhere. Except when we replace hotels with colleges the latter doesn't work as well because all U.S. colleges (that I know of) offer sports and students don't get a discount if they promise not to use these extra amenities.

This consumption aspect of college sports would make the arguments about Title IX very different. Why, a parent might ask, should I pay more so that someone else's son or daughter can play when mine doesn't care for sports? Because on average sports do cost the colleges money. And why, the same parent might mutter, do some students get scholarships (which are really reductions in the price of tuition), just because they want these special amenities?

There are other aspects of the college offerings which are similar to sports, of course, and students do get to enjoy them even if they don't enjoy sports. But the amount of money spent on sports is large and most of it benefits but a small fraction of the total student population.

So what is fair would seem to depend on what we assume that school and college sports achieve. Maybe we could fight over that next?