n Mother's Day this Sunday, Debra Downey won't be relaxing at home with her family. Instead, she'll be on the campus of Bowling Green State University, wearing a "Save BG Track" T-shirt, handing out buttons, and otherwise getting her message out by lobbying parents of graduates and alumni.
"From the look on his face I originally thought someone had died," Mrs. Downey recalls of the night of March 19, when her junior son, Drew, arrived home from school to tell his parents that his track team was being cut.
In late March, Bowling Green State University announced that it would eliminate men's tennis, track, and swimming and diving. That's 16 scholarships cut and 55 student athletes affected. In recent years, Bowling Green has also eliminated men's wrestling and lacrosse.
For freshman David Springer, someone really had died. The week the athletic cuts were announced was also the week six Bowling Green students died in a car accident on their way home from spring break. David was the last to see most of them, two of whom were good friends from high school. When he got back from their funerals, he was faced with his devastated roommate breaking the news to him about the team. (David's mother doesn't understand why the school couldn't wait a week or two at least have on-campus funerals for the six girls first before breaking some students' hearts even further.)
Coach Martin didn't have much prep time either, finding out without prior warning about the nixing of his team only a few hours before the school's athletic director broke the news to the young men. Now, as he spends his days trying to help find his runners new homes, he, too, is off the Bowling Green team, looking for somewhere else to go.
According to school officials, something had to be cut, due to a school debt, and trusty Title IX the so-called women's-equity law that has devolved into a federal quota mandate in high-school and college sports ultimately made the decision for them. This year Bowling Green has 11 men's teams and 11 women's teams including Division I men's hockey, basketball, and football. Come the fall, that will drop to eight for the men. Sixteen fewer scholarships and two fewer coach salaries means a savings of $36,000, the athletic director has said.
Division I hockey, football, and tennis all cost major money, Bowling Green explains, and so they just can't afford all their teams. But that's the thing about track and what makes it such an odd sport to cut. As Eric Peterson, father of a senior on the track team and who, while living in Kansas City a few years ago, helped run an inner-city summer program for track points out: "It would cost the university very little to continue to support track." You don't need money to play it. "Track is open to kids of all socioeconomic backgrounds, says Coach Martin. "You can be from a very poor neighborhood and still get into track. All you really need is a pair of sneakers and some pavement."
In fact, in a day when affirmative action and diversity are such a prominent part of campus life, Bowling State is eliminating the sport with the highest representation of minorities, next to football. Hockey, for instance, has one minority player. Sterling Martin is the only black head coach in the school's history. (Odd that Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton haven't discovered track.)
At schools across the country, says Coach Martin, "You're dropping sports like wrestling and track and field which have traditionally had large numbers of minorities. And you are adding sports like rowing and synchronized skating. You are losing Olympic sports and a great way for minority students to get a foot in the door at schools. The sports you are adding are not accessible to all." This is not an even playing field, he explains. "I don't really think they'll be inner city women's rowing and synchronized skating, or women's hockey."
"At a school like Bowling Green," Coach Martin says, "whose admissions office reaches out to minorities, it's a strange situation with the athletic department. Of the ten sports offered, two have more than one or two minorities on the entire roster."
The messages Bowling Green is sending with the cuts: Women's quotas trump minority opportunities. Entertainment trumps education. Both are messages you would think would much cause more of a stir.
Additionally as Mrs. Downey points out compared to football, basketball, and hockey, track has a much higher representation of Ohio residents. Compare 85 percent to football's 58 percent, basketball's 43 percent, and hockey's 3 percent.
As women, Downey and Springer say they both support Title IX in its original form: fairness. But it's the very antithesis of that now. Listening to these mothers, you would think you were listening to Title IX policy wonks.
"I think the intent was great," says Mrs. Downey. "The real problem lies in the interpretation and now colleges are running scared that the Title IX police will descend upon them, and are using this knee-jerk response at the expense of their male athletes."
The law, which went into effect 30 years ago this summer, states: "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."
As Jessica Gavora points out in her new book on Title IX and women's sports, Tilting the Playing Field: Schools, Sports, Sex and Title IX, its passage by Congress was a "simple and laudable thing," but "more than any other federal law, it has been interpreted and twisted and bent outside the institutions of our electoral democracy." The story of Title IX since 1972 has been a litany of unintended consequences, in the form of faculty conferences, Department of Education guidelines, and court decisions.
Listening to the track moms, you are quickly reminded of the very human side of the Title IX battle. While talking to NRO this week, Mrs. Springer was painting her son's room before his return home after finals, hoping to have something to brighten what has turned out to be a miserable end to his freshman year. David doesn't know where he will be next year, and Mrs. Springer, a Bowling Green alum herself, has had a 180-degree attitude change about the school she was once proud to call her alma mater. Wherever David is next year, however, she says, she does not intend on being quiet about Title IX at Bowling Green or anywhere else.
When the track parents first protested the decision, they formed a committee to help save the program, presenting the school with a plan to raise the money needed to sustain the program. But no one is harboring hope for the BG track program, at least in the short term.
And Sterling Martin, the much-loved coach of 15 years, is considering doing what he would never have conceived of a year ago: going back to school, doing something completely different. "As much as I hate to, when you step back and look at the future of the sport and of Olympic sports at universities, you start thinking that the pay is not that great, the hours suck and there's a good chance they won't be around five years from now."
The Bush administration can always undo some of the damage the last 30 years has wrought. In fact, next week, on May 17, the Department of Justice meets a deadline for answering the complaint over Title IX interpretation filed by the National Wrestling Coaches Association, the College Gymnastics Association, and the U.S. Track Coaches Association. The administration's answer could be the first sign of relief men's sports has seen since being sacrificed on the altar of proportionality in women's sports.
Until then, they'll have women like Deb Downey and Alice Springer to answer to who, as Mrs. Downey puts it, are not prone to "rolling over."