High school wrestlers--could the Olympics be in their future?

High school wrestlers--could the Olympics be in their future?

The recent Olympic Games in Beijing brought renewed national attention to an issue that is constantly on the minds of many in the athletic community: the impact that Title IX has had- and continues to have–on men’s collegiate athletics. For certain men’s sports, the correlation between Title IX and the elimination of college teams is nearly impossible to deny–for example, 466 varsity wrestling teams have been dropped since 1972, when Title IX was passed. The loss of teams cannot be blamed entirely on budgetary concerns, both due to the sheer number of teams eliminated and the fact that wrestling is a relatively inexpensive sport. In fact, colleges have readily admitted that Title IX was a factor in the decision to eliminate wrestling programs.

The cause of these cuts is simple: in implementing Title IX, the Department of Education created a three-prong test for compliance, and one prong requires that the “opportunities for male and female students are provided in numbers substantially proportionate to their respective enrollments.” Too often, schools have responded to the proportionality requirement by cutting men’s programs entirely or capping the number of participants.

How does this relate to the Olympics? Many of the men’s programs that are the target of the cuts–including wrestling, swimming, diving, fencing, and rowing–also happen to be Olympic sports. These sports simply tend to generate less revenue at the collegiate level than non-Olympic sports such as football, and thus, are logical targets when a school is under pressure to make cuts to comply with Title IX. As a recent article in the Wall Street Journal points out, the “carrot” of a college scholarship is often a motivating factor in a child’s decision to pursue an Olympic sport. The loss of college programs also eliminates opportunities for continued participation in certain sports during college, around the age at which many athletes peak.

The results were evident at the Beijing Olympics. For example, the United States failed to earn any medals in men’s diving, a sport in which it has historically achieved success. Yet this is not surprising given that many college diving programs have been eliminated in the years since the passage of Title IX. For example, the University of Miami, which produced U.S. Olympic gold medal diver Greg Louganis, dropped its diving program several years ago. Additionally, while the U.S. women won eight medals in gymnastics in Beijing, the men won only two, neither of them gold. As in diving, U.S. men have historically been successful in Olympic gymnastics, earning five medals in the 1976 Olympic Games and winning the team gold medal in 1984. However, in the ensuing years, the number of men’s collegiate programs has dwindled to just nineteen.

Change in this area is unlikely to come from the courts: in 2005, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by the National Wrestling Coaches’ Association alleging discrimination against men under Title IX. However, the issue is receiving some attention on the political front. A petition currently being circulated calling for “common-sense” reform of Title IX has the support of Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr. Barr has called for an end to “Title IX’s gender quota system that has devastated so many of our collegiate sports programs.” The petition has also been signed by former U.S. Olympians in swimming, gymnastics, and wrestling. While the success of the petition remains to be seen, the combination of the Olympics and the presidential election may finally bring this issue to the attention of those who have the power to effect change.

— Tori Langton

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