Thursday, January 30, 2003

Analysis: Women's sports need Title IX

By Steve Wilstein
The Associated Press

Desperate times call for desperate deals.

Selling a sports franchise to a casino is that kind of deal.

The NFL, so obsessed with maintaining its distance from gambling, wouldn't allow even a TV ad for Las Vegas to sully the Super Bowl. Baseball is worried that Pete Rose, under consideration for reinstatement, is still hanging out at casinos and sports books.

Leagues and college teams are forever fearful that they will be tainted by gambling, that games could be fixed and credibility lost.

Now comes the deal to sell the WNBA's defunct Orlando franchise to the Mohegan Sun casino, owned by the Mohegan Indian Tribe in Uncasville, Conn., and play home games within sound of the cheerful ka-ching of slot machines.

WNBA president Val Ackerman shrugs off this odd coupling, pointing out that the Mohegan Sun doesn't take sports bets and that the casino, with its 1,200-room hotel, spa, shops and theater, is more a family kind of place than a den of iniquity. WNBA point spreads are hardly the stuff of big-time, or small-time, gamblers.

"It doesn't present a problem for us," Ackerman said.

She's right, of course, though not everyone might be comfortable equating casinos with Disneyland.

If there is a moral issue over whether sports leagues should get cozy with casinos, it is taking a back seat to the issue of survival. The WNBA is in trouble, with attendance and salaries low, the Miami franchise also folding and the Utah team moving to San Antonio.

These are not the best of times for women's professional sports.

In soccer, the eight-team WUSA, with attendance at 7,000 a game, is hanging on but not quite capturing the public's imagination the way the women's World Cup championship team did.

Even the hugely successful WTA Tour, bolstered by the stardom of Serena and Venus Williams and coming off its best year of attendance, TV ratings, revenues and profits, has had problems. Sanex stunned the WTA by ending its overall sponsorship and nobody stepped in to take over. The WTA's chief executive officer recently resigned after only one year, as did its president, and the tour championship in Los Angeles last November drew small crowds.

The LPGA Tour is successful by every standard except the PGA Tour's, with the men garnering far higher purses and sponsorship deals.

All of which is reason to lament any attack by a Bush administration commission on the underpinning of all women's sports: Title IX.

At a time when women's sports could use all the help they can get, the last thing they need is a weakening of the 31-year-old gender equity law that has enabled them to flourish in high schools and colleges and has propelled their growth in the Olympics and pros.

A majority of the 15 commissioners appointed by Education Secretary Rod Paige are expected to vote Thursday in favor of scaling back Title IX's equity requirements, abandoning the strict proportionality of male and female athletes to the male-female student populations at schools.

It is a move that, if approved by the Bush administration, could ultimately hurt women's sports at all levels - as participants and fans.

Title IX needs more enforcement, not less. It should be tweaked so that it is more easily understood and applied and is not used as an excuse to cut men's wrestling, gymnastics, track and other programs. If cutbacks are needed, though, a little trimming of bloated football and men's basketball budgets could go a long way toward saving other sports.

There is no great mandate for a Bush administration assault on Title IX, which has helped boost the number of girls participating in high school sports from 294,000 in 1971 to 2.8 million last year. The number of women in college sports increased fivefold over a similar time frame.

A Gallup Poll released this week found that, among those familiar with the law, 61 percent view it favorably. Younger Americans who have grown up under the law's influence are the most favorable toward it, with 71 percent of those 19-29 saying it's been positive.

"A lot of people don't know what Title IX is," Frank Newport, head of the Gallup Organization, said. "But if they're familiar with it, the general reaction of everybody is to say, 'Yes, it's had a positive impact on sports. It's a good thing."'

The commissioners bickered throughout Wednesday's session in Washington, but they agreed on at least one topic: The Education Department needs to do a better job explaining the guidelines of Title IX to colleges and high schools.

Several women's groups, fearful that the commission will substantially weaken Title IX, protested outside the hotel where the meeting took place.

One of those was women's national soccer team goalkeeper Siri Mullinix.

"Title IX," she said, "got me where I am today."

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. E-mail

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