The most important women's sports story of the last four years has gotten big play on the tube recently—not on ABC or ESPN, but on C-SPAN, the Congressional cable service. It's the story of the Civil Rights Restoration Act, a bill that would bar any institution that receives federal aid from discriminating on the basis of race, age, disability or sex. The bill's enactment, which seems almost certain, will restore many rights lost to women as a result of the Supreme Court's controversial 1984 Grove City ruling. And while the Restoration Act doesn't specifically address women's sports programs, one of its effects will be to give women seeking equal opportunity in athletics renewed legal clout.
The Senate passed the bill by an overwhelming 75-14 margin in January and the House followed suit by a 315-98 tally early this month. Even if President Reagan vetoes the measure this week, as he has threatened to, that veto is likely to be overridden. "It's a tremendous victory for women's athletics." says Deborah Anderson, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation.
Four years ago it was feared that women's sports would wither because of the Grove City decision. Until then, women had been making tremendous gains in athletics, in large measure because of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which barred sexual discrimination in any educational program or activity that received federal funds. The number of women participating in college sports had mushroomed from 32,000 in '72 to 150,000 in '83.
Then, on Feb. 28, 1984, the Supreme Court, ruling 6-3 in the case of Grove City College v. Bell, knocked the legs from under Title IX. The case didn't specifically involve sex discrimination. In '78, Grove City (Pa.), a small coed school affiliated with the Presbyterian Church and staunchly resistant to government regulations that it felt interfered with its independence, refused to fill out a form stating that it had complied with Title IX. When the U.S. Department of Education cut off financial aid to Grove City students, the college filed suit. Grove City claimed that it wasn't bound by the provisions of Title IX because, while some of its students received federal funds, the college had never accepted direct federal aid.
The Supreme Court determined that Grove City's financial aid office could indeed be regulated under Title IX. But the court also ruled that compliance with the statute was limited to those specific programs that received federal money—in the case of Grove City, only the financial aid office.
This was a crucial distinction. Until the Supreme Court's finding, the common interpretation of Title IX had been that it applied to all of the activities at a school that received federal assistance for any purpose. Because school athletic programs receive little or no federal money directly, the Supreme Court decision meant that, in effect. Title IX no longer covered sports.
The impact was immediate. The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) had been conducting Title IX compliance reviews and investigations of college athletic departments, but it now found itself without a legal basis for doing so. Within a year of Grove City, the OCR had suspended 64 investigations, more than half involving college athletics.
The issue went far beyond women's sports. The Reagan administration, whose Justice Department lawyers had argued for the narrow interpretation of Title IX, began applying the Grove City precedent to situations involving alleged discrimination against minorities, the elderly and the disabled. Congressmen went quickly to work on a revised bill that would revive the Title IX protections while making clear that the statute was to be interpreted broadly. For three years their efforts failed, largely because of disputes over the bill's possible application to aid for abortions. Ultimately, a modified abortion amendment was added to the Restoration Act, clearing the way for overwhelming congressional approval.
Despite Grove City, the women's sports movement has shown unexpected resilience. In the last three years, about 450 new NCAA women's teams have been created, reflecting a willingness among college administrators to fund women's sports, even when not required by law to do so.
But not all the news has been good. Some women's sports programs have suffered budget reductions that weren't imposed upon men's teams—and that might not have been allowed had Title IX been in force. Women's groups point to Southwest Texas State as a typical example of inequality: In 1986 the school disbanded a consistently successful women's gymnastics program two years after the football team embarked on a costly move up to Division I-AA, where the Bobcats have a mediocre four-year record of 18-26.
And, ironically, the growth of women's programs hasn't resulted in a proportional increase in jobs for female coaches. Kathy Lawlor-Gilbert, who coaches both men's and women's swimming at Penn. is believed to be the only female among more than 1,000 head coaches of men's Division I sports teams.
Even President Reagan, who opposes the Restoration Act on the grounds that it "dramatically expands the scope" of federal jurisdiction over state and local governments, religious groups and private business, says he supports the idea that women deserve equal opportunity in sports. In fact, he recently welcomed Anderson and several distinguished women athletes to the White House. The bill may not change the face of sports overnight, but it will add considerable muscle to the fight for equality that women have been waging for decades. "With Grove City, we reached the end of the track," says Merrily Baker, women's athletic director at Minnesota. "Now it's time for some new track to be built."