James Madison University’s Decision to Cut Athletic Teams: A Farce or Tragedy?

Dec 8, 2006

By Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D.
 
In 1822, James Madison, one of the most significant thinkers to shape conceptions of American democracy, articulated the necessity for citizen access to reliable information about Congress and other governmental entities by pointing out that “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both” (“Democracy”, n.d.). It is ironic that the university that now bears his name might be contributing to both a farcical and tragic reading of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 as a result of the manner in which decisions reached on that campus have been represented to the public. To follow is a brief summary of what James Madison University proposed under the guise of gender equity, selected events that followed, and other considerations that may expand the context out of which these decisions were made.
 
In late September of 2006, the Board of Visitors at James Madison University announced a plan to cut a total of ten teams (7 men’s and 3 women’s), effective July 1, 2007 in an effort to address what was described as an “insurmountable challenge” to comply with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 due to the athletics program being “unusually large for a public university” of its size (Staff, September 29, 2006). The decision will affect 144 athletes (eight of whom are on athletic scholarships) and 11 coaches (three full time and eight part time). With assurances that every avenue had been explored prior to reaching their decision, associate vice-president of communications Andy Perrine elaborated, “We would not have done it [cut teams] if not for Title IX. There was just about no way we could add more women’s programs and afford it and be in compliance” (Redden, 2006). Citing the ten point gap in the percentage of women within the student body compared to women in the athletic program (roughly 61% to 51%), vice president for finance and administration Charles King wrote in his November 2006 newsletter, “We could not continue to be out of compliance with this important federal law, which requires institutions to have a percentage of varsity athletes that is about the same by ratio as the student body. At JMU, this means that approximately 60% of our varsity athletes must be women.”
 
In the aftermath of the announcement, students from the affected sports and their allies rallied on campus to voice their opposition to the decision and their frustration with the federal law that they have been led to believe dictated that the cuts occur. Through an emerging relationship with the College Sports Council, an organization that has long argued that enforcement of Title IX has resulted in a quota system, athletes were encouraged to take their concerns directly to the United States Department of Education. In early November, approximately 100 athletes from James Madison and other universities rallied on site in front of the Education Department calling for Title IX reform. Taking a position that Title IX is no longer necessary because “more females are interested in sports and female enrollment outpaces male enrollment,” their rally concluded with the protesters running several laps around the building and meeting with Education officials to air their grievances (Lemke, 2006).
 
In a pattern now typical of Title IX controversies, the JMU case has become a focal point around which various groups have registered concerns. Interestingly enough, however, groups as divergent in viewpoints as the College Sport Council and the Women’s Sports Foundation are in unified agreement that cutting sports is not a desirable or preferred decision (Lemke, 2006; Lopiano, 2006). In point of fact, DOE spokesman Chad Colby reiterated that the Office for Civil Rights is “always concerned when schools choose to eliminate or reduce opportunities for [their] students and has strongly discouraged such actions as a means of complying with Title IX” (Lemke, 2006).
 
Expressing skepticism about JMU’s motives, the chief executive officer of the United States Olympic Committee, James Scherr, took the unprecedented step of challenging JMU’s position, writing, “We have seen universities across the nation inappropriately use Title IX as an excuse to eliminate sport programs” (Dixit, 2006). President of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Myles Brand, in a speech before the National Press Club in late October of 2006, similarly noted that institutions have unfairly used Title IX as an excuse to cut men’s teams. As he put it, this kind of restructuring is the result of “institutional priorities and financial circumstances…not the unintended consequences of Title IX” (p. 13).
 
Left with these disparate readings of what happened at JMU, how are we to make sense of it? Perhaps a starting point is to ask a larger question. How does it come to pass that a university that was once an all-women’s institution has found so much difficulty complying with the equity requirements under Title IX when, at one point in its history, as Dr. Leotus Morrison, associate director emerita of athletics has noted, “Madison College and JMU presented opportunities for women in sports when many other colleges and universities did not” (Dr. Lee Morrison biography, The Morrison-Bruce Center…). Insight in this regard might be found by locating the discussion where two of the key forces shaping this dialogue converge, not just in the larger American society but specifically on the JMU campus. It is not wholly happenstance that the passage of Title IX in 1972 coincides with the introduction of football on the JMU campus and the decisions being reached on that campus today (JMU Football Media Guide 2006).
 
Football’s strategic absence from JMU’s rationale is notable from the standpoint that JMU claims financial hardship in remedying its Title IX problems at a time when a new, $10 million athletic facility designed to meet the needs of the football program was just opened. Whereas the campaign for the Plecker Athletic Performance Center generated “the largest amount of donations ever made for a JMU project,” significantly $2.8 million for completion of that project was drawn from “JMU reserves and other non-tax sources” (Staff, June 3, 2003).
 
The university has stated that there simply was not enough money available to continue to fund existing programs and address the requirements of Title IX. In effect, the institution decided that certain athletic programs could not be run as loss leaders any longer. From a financial accounting perspective, this makes perfect sense. However, the elimination of ten sports resulted in the recovery of approximately $560,000, which will be redistributed within the athletic program to fully fund scholarships for selected women’s and men’s sports. Whereas the institution did not wish to encumber further debt by adding women’s programs, it is nevertheless notable that the football team, according to data in the institution’s Equity in Athletics Disclosure document for 2005-2006, reported over $800,000 in expenses above the revenue it generated.
 
From a public perspective, as well as from the perspective of what is being passed on to future generations of college students, the representation of Title IX as the promoter of unreasonable and irrational decision making serves to obscure the institutional values and priorities reflected in the JMU decision. Beyond the obvious impediment to a belief that women’s interests were at the core of this decision, as seen in the incongruous cutting of women’s sports within this plan and the scholarship benefits which will eventually accrue to both female and male athletes as a result of these cuts, there is the matter of who is funding the increased financial investment in the football program. Whereas JMU has cited increasing numbers of women on their campus as part of the problem they had with proportionality, one wonders if not for those women and the tuition they represent, how the university would have funded the nearly $3 million it relied upon from institutional reserves to complete the Plecker Athletic Performance Center.
 
Further, inasmuch as women now constitute 61% of the student body at JMU, there were decisions to be made on that front as well. For example, JMU has been in a period of growth for over a decade, with increasing numbers of both female and male students at the undergraduate and graduate level, reporting enrollments that have risen at the undergraduate level from 11,643 in 1996 to close to 17,000 a decade later (“Fall 2005 on-campus enrollment summary”, December 2005). At the time JMU started to expand enrollment, the gender ratio on their campus was 55 percent female, 45 percent male. Even if the adjustments made to the JMU athletics program were prompted by Title IX, why would those be unwarranted given the changes in their demographic, a demographic they have elected to control in part by building a financial model premised on increased growth in the undergraduate student population.
 
In his recent address to the National Press Club, NCAA President Myles Brand observed that institutions must make decisions about what they can and cannot afford, what sports they will sponsor, and at what level those sports will be supported. Contrary to the suggestion here that Title IX required the cuts at JMU, in point of fact, Title IX provides enormous latitude for institutions to make those determinations on their own, as long as they are not discriminating on the basis of sex. JMU could have added opportunities for women but elected not to. This decision can hardly be viewed as one that advanced the interests of women on the JMU campus.
 
As Division I institutions compete for limited pools of financial resources, it is far better to understand these cuts as reflective of the corporate restructuring of programs within an athletic culture where spending has historically been difficult to rein in rather than as a Title IX issue. Blaming Title IX in the JMU scenario adds to the drama but does nothing to further our respect for women or what the law actually requires. To do so tragically undermines the purpose and intent of Title IX and obscures the farce that occurs when Title IX is wrongly cited as the reason to explain the elevation of some institutional priorities over others.
 
Staurowsky is a professor and graduate chair of the Department of Sport Management & Media at Ithaca College. She can be reached at 607-274-1730 or by email at staurows@ithaca.edu
 
References
 
Brand, M. (2006, October 30). Speech to the National Press Club. Retrieved online at
http://www.ncaa.org on December 4, 2006.
 
“Democracy”. This is a statement found at the site for Open the Government. Retrieved online at http://www.openthegovernment.org/article/articleview/29/1/15 on December 4, 2006.
 
Dixit, R. (2006, October 19). USOC protest cuts: U. S. Olympics Committee interferes for first time in Title IX compliance. The Breeze, n.p. Retrieved online at
http://www.thebreeze.org/2006/10-19/top2.html on October 30, 2006.
 
“Dr. Lee Morrison”. Biography found on the site of The Morrison-Bruce Center for the Promotion of Physical Activity for Girls and Women, James Madison University. Retrieved online at http://www.jmu.edu/kinesiology/cppagw/leemorrison.htm on December 4, 2006.
 
“Fall 2005 on-campus enrollment summary” (December, 2005). James Madison University Office of Institutional Research. Retrieved online at http://www.jmu.edu/instresrch/notes/Vol19no5.pdf on December 4, 2006.
“History of James Madison University.” Retrieved online at http://web.jmu.edu/history/ on December 4, 2006.
 
James Madison University Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act Report, 2005-2006.
Retrieved online at http://ope.ed.gov/athletics/InstDetail.asp on December 4, 2006.
 
King, C. (2006, November). James Madison University administrative & finance newsletter.Retrievedonlineat http://www.jmu.edu/adminfinance/news/nov2006.shtml
on December 4, 2006.
 
Lemke, T. (2006, November 3). Group protests Title IX. The Washington Times, p. C01.
 
Lopiano, D. (2006, November). James Madison University and Title IX: Myths and facts. Retrieved online at
http://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/cgi-bin/iowa/issues/disc/article.html?record=1158
 


 

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