Sunday, August 27, 2000

Setback for gender equity

        We have not heard the end of this. Chances are, this is only the beginning. A second front has opened in the battle for gender equity in sports, and it may prove more problematic than the first: What happens when the boys decide to crash the girls' party?

        The co-ed team that won the heretofore female Little League Softball World Series last week raised a number of troubling questions and lowered the standards of American sportsmanship. It exploited a loophole in the Little League constitution to trample the spirit of the competition with an onslaught of teen-age testosterone.

        Perfectly legal. Utterly shameless.

        The skewed citizens of Eloy, Ariz., sent a team with five boys — all of them starters — to compete in Kalamazoo, Mich., in an international tournament otherwise composed entirely of girls. Twice en route to its tainted title, the Arizona ringers advanced by forfeit.

        There hasn't been a victory so hollow since the NBA's Dream Team drubbed Angola. There hasn't been a threat to women's sports so ominous since a pair of men pros sought to sue their way into the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1979.

        It's a can of worms with no lid, one open to all sorts of thorny problems:

        • Philosophical — If girls are allowed to compete against boys in such sports as wrestling and football, how can boys be barred from infiltrating female specialties such as softball and field hockey?

        • Moral — How can women athletes presume to seek equality if they discriminate against men?

        • Practical — How can women's sports survive if men are permitted to participate? The physiological differences between the sexes are profound, to say nothing of how sweaty men smell.

        • Legal — How can the courts close the gender loopholes without creating double standards?

        As women continue to gain a greater share of the sports dollar, these kinds of questions are bound to move from the philosophical to the practical. As colleges scramble to comply with Title IX requirements, so also do they invite a backlash.

No plan in place
        The University of Cincinnati has dropped its men's tennis program to provide more proportionate opportunities for women. But what happens if some guy decides to try out for the women's team?

        “I don't know that we have a plan,” UC spokesman Tom Hathaway said.

        Jane Meyer, the NCAA's director of education outreach, said the NCAA has yet to face a test case involving a male student attempting to join a women's team. She argues that member schools would be under no obligation to accommodate such a request so long as women athletes qualify as the underrepresented gender according to government guidelines.

        Yet based on the most recent statistics available for Division I schools — those reflecting the 1997-98 academic year — women receive 41 percent of athletic scholarships but represent only 40 percent of the participants.

        Whether these numbers constitute gender equity depends on your definition and your politics. Those interested in preserving men's programs claim the piece of the pie being allocated to women's college sports already exceeds the level of women's interest in sports. Women's advocates counter that increased opportunities fuel increased interest.

New problems
        As old barriers are broken down, new problems are posed. When a Georgia golfer named Barrie Naismith won an out-of-court settlement permitting her to compete in men's tournaments from the women's tees in 1979, resentful men wondered if the tables could be turned.

        Gordon Waldespuhl, a Northern Kentucky golf pro, unsuccessfully sought membership in the LPGA and subsequently filed a fruitless sexual discrimination complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.

        “I was going to teach them a lesson if I got in,” said Waldespuhl, now 68. “I wouldn't have stayed out there (on tour). But I would have proved a point. I think it should be men and men and women and women.”

        The trouble with equality is that it is a two-way street. The trouble with allowing men to compete in women's events is that it is a dead end.

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