With the country busy worrying about impending war with Iraq and orange terrorism alerts, the Bush Administration is making a move to mess with one of the most important and successful laws of the modern era.

The Commission on Opportunity in Athletics, a blue-ribbon panel convened by Secretary of Education Rod Paige to study possible changes to Title IX, offered its final report yesterday on possible changes the 1972 landmark civil rights law that banned gender discrimination in education spending. It unanimously suggested strengthening enforcement of the law (an unassailable position) but recommended making it official Department of Education policy to make cutting sports teams “a non-favored policy,” according to The New York Times. Other proposals that were not unanimously endorsed by the commission, but forwarded to Paige nonetheless, included measures that would have made it easier for universities to comply with less action.

While Paige has said he would only pursue the unanimous recommendations, the mere fact that anyone would suggest that Title IX has been anything but an unqualified success is absurd. The statistics tell it all. The discussion of Title IX far too often focuses only on sports; people forget that the main aim of the law was academics. Since passage of the law, women have made tremendous gains on and off the field. In 1971, women constituted seven percent of all law students. By 1997, that number had grown to 44 percent. In 1971, women made up just one percent of all engineering students; in 1997, it was 17 percent. In business, women went from 10 percent of the total number of students to 49 percent. Those numbers are all according to the commission’s own report.

Of course, the athletic gains for women are astounding, too. In 1966, 15,182 women participated in NCAA sports. By 2001, that number had grown to 150,916. That’s an almost 900 percent increase. When high schools are factored in, there are now more than five times the number of women participating in sports than there was in 1971. Those numbers also come from the commission’s report, which is available at the DOE’s Web site, if you’re interested.

I can’t think of a single federal law that has had more of a positive impact on more people in the last 30 years. Tinkering with this law is downright dumb. Opposition to Title IX, frankly, is just silly.

Conservatives around the country dislike Title IX because it forces universities receiving federal funding to give fair treatment to women’s sports programs. What that has translated into is schools like Providence and Boston University being forced to cut men’s scholarship sports like baseball and wrestling in order to fund women’s sports. Conservatives don’t like it when they are inconvenienced by having to sacrifice things in the name of “diversity” and “equality.” They complain about how hard it is to be a white male in America today and get excited when politicians talk about sending a message to the folks in Washington that people are tired of the government getting involved in their lives.

Look, I don’t care how many baseball and wrestling programs get cancelled; Title IX has immeasurably improved the lives of too many Americans to consider weakening it in any way, shape or form.

With the way college sports has evolved into a big business, it’s easy to forget that colleges and universities don’t run athletic programs just to keep alumni happy and to build fancy gymnasiums. Athletic programs are a vital component of education. They are the “body” part of the rhetoric about “educating the whole person: mind, body and spirit.” The lessons learned on the athletic field can be as important as the ones learned in the classroom. Anything short of complete, total, unmitigated equality of access to these programs is patently wrong. That’s one of a slew of reasons why weakening Title IX is wrong.

Another is that Title IX has allowed innumerable women to be able to even go to college in the first place. By dividing athletic scholarships evenly, women who would not ordinarily be able to afford higher education have the same opportunity to earn a degree as men. That’s indisputable and unassailable progress any way you look at it. Sorry if your school had to drop its baseball program; it’s a small price to pay for equality.

Rolling back any provision of Title IX would be to say to American women that they don’t deserve equal access to athletic scholarships because of the stereotyped opinion that “girls don’t like sports as much as boys.” Good luck selling that to voters.

Title IX should not be sacrificed at the altar of pandering to conservative voters. It might take some courage on the part of a few Republicans, but Title IX absolutely must be protected. So if you are a woman, if you know a woman, if you have a mother, if you have a sister, if you’ve ever seen a woman on TV, get angry. The Bush administration has its sights set on turning back the clock on women’s equality. Do everything you can to stop it.

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