Title IX is not why U.S. women dominated at Rio

When American women achieve notable success in athletics it’s never long before precincts of the feminist left attribute the success to the federal government. Now, following the 2016 Olympics, Jennifer Rubin, the house conservative at the Washington Post, peddles this notion in a piece called “Why American women dominated in Rio.”

Rubin does so in the usual way; she cites Title IX. The argument is specious at several levels.

Title IX provides:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

These are good words and in theory Title IX is a good law. The problem is that, as with nearly all of the major civil rights laws, Title IX has been interpreted to require quotas.

Non-discrimination in participation is construed to mean equal levels of male and female participation in college sports regardless of differences in interest. To obtain something like equal participation rates, men’s programs are sometimes eliminated to make room for sports, such as bowling, that might entice women to participate.

Christina Hoff Sommers offered this example:

Look what happened at Howard University in Washington, D.C.: The school’s student body is 67% female, but women constitute only 43% of its athletic program. In 2007, the Women’s Sports Foundation, a powerful Title IX advocacy group, gave Howard an “F” grade because of its 24% “proportionality gap.”

Howard had already cut men’s wrestling and baseball and added women’s bowling, but that did little to narrow the gap. Unless it cuts almost half of its current male athletes, Howard will remain under a Title IX cloud and legally vulnerable.

The school’s former wrestling coach, Wade Hughes, summed up the problem this way: “The impact of Title IX’s proportionality standard has been disastrous because … far more males than females are seeking to take part in athletics.”

Wrestling and baseball aren’t the only male athletic programs vulnerable to Title IX. Men’s cross country and indoor track are among the others that have been hit.

The proposition that lack of equal participation means exclusion from participation hinges on the view that women, taken as a group, are as interested as men in competitive sports. Sommers demonstrated the falsity of this view by examining statistics on participation rates in intramural and recreational league sports. She also cited a 2013 ESPN survey. It found that 34 percent of girls in grades 3-12 say sports is a big part of who they are; for boys the figure was 61 percent.

Now let’s turn back to Rubin’s attempt to tie the extraordinary success of American women at the Rio Olympics to Title IX as enforced by the feds. Her claim of a causal relationship suffers from several problems.

First, Title IX has been aggressively enforced as a quota system for decades. Liberals attributed the famous victory of the U.S. women’s soccer team at the 1999 World Cup to Title IX. The George W. Bush administration took a hard look at the Title IX quota enforcement scheme 13 years ago, but backed away from doing anything serious about it.

Thus, there is no sound basis for attributing the extraordinary successes of American women in 2016 to Title IX. If there’s a causal relationship, we should have seen the same level of success in London, Beijing, and Athens. The Rio success, I suspect, has more to do with anti-doping enforcement, which probably set back the some of our strongest competitors, e.g. Russian athletes, more than Americans.

It would be more plausible to credit Title IX for an upward arc in Olympic success by American women. But such a claim is also problematic.

Rubin cites U.S. female success in swimming, track, and gymnastics. But gymnasts and swimmers are well on their way to stardom before they hit high school. They are groomed by high power programs that don’t depend on federal support and thus aren’t covered by Title IX.

Rubin points to Simone Biles and Katie Ledecki. Biles was a superstar before she reached college. Ledecki was an Olympic gold medalist before reaching high school, and the best female swimmer in the world before reaching college (she’s just starting at Stanford now). Ledecki honed her skills at private swim clubs and a private high school (a few miles from where I live). I fail to see what Title IX has had to do with her success.

Track stars too are groomed at the local level, outside of school. College programs also play an important role, but they aren’t a creature of Title IX. Major colleges have long offered women’s track and field programs. If some have added programs in response to Title IX, it doesn’t matter for purposes of Olympic success (though it’s probably a good development for other reasons). Absent these programs, female track stars would attend other colleges that offer track programs.

This, I’m pretty sure, is what happens when, thanks to Title IX, men’s programs in Olympic related events (e.g., cross country, indoor track, and wrestling) are eliminated. Talented wrestlers and runners presumably find colleges that have been able to keep these programs in the face of Title IX.

But if I’m wrong about this, then Title IX is probably depressing the medal count of Olympic men. Title IX advocates can’t have it both ways. If a large number of women’s programs in a given athletic endeavor is necessary for a big medal haul, then the same must be true on the men’s side.

Moreover, a college bowling program for women won’t yield Olympic medals; a college wrestling or cross country program might, at least in theory. I doubt that there’s a legitimate federal interest in pumping up the American female medal count at the expense of the men’s.

Rubin seems to understand the centrality of local recreational sports, as opposed to college programs, to Olympic success. She cites a claim in a Wall Street Journal article that “the effect of Title IX has trickled down to youth sports, where it almost unthinkable for youth leagues. . .to create opportunities only for boys.”

The Wall Street Journal cited no evidence that, but for Title IX, youth programs in sports like swimming, gymnastics, and track would exclude women. The proposition strikes me as unsupportable.

When I coached youth basketball in the early 1980s, the local rec leagues had girls teams. When we joined a swimming poll around the same time, girls were competing in every event that boys were. This was before the current Title IX enforcement regime took.

Girls gymnastics has been at least as big a deal as boys gymnastics for as long as I can remember. Girls soccer programs have been omnipresent at the local level for almost as long. These are the programs that gave rise to stars like Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers, who help carry the U.S. to World Cup glory all those years ago.

Finally, we should ask whether the federal government should, effectively, be shutting down men’s athletic programs even if doing does pump up the U.S. medal count for women. There are other things the government could do that would likely contribute more to U.S. success.

Look at the success China has had in Olympic diving due, most likely, to identifying promising divers before they reach puberty and placing them in national programs away from home. This same basic model was employed with great success by East Germany and the former Soviet Union in the bad old days.

Few would argue that the U.S. should adopt this approach. Even if one believes that it’s the federal government’s role to help generate Olympic success, there clearly are limits on how far it should go.

Forcing colleges to adopt a quota system for athletics on the unsupportable view that men and women are equally interested in competing in sports exceeds these limits, in my view. Others disagree in good faith. This sort of disagreement, not claims about Olympic success, should be where the Title IX debate is waged.