Web Exclusives: Bonus Stories


June 4, 2002:
Princeton Wrestling and Title IX

By H. Clay McEldowney '69

I'm asked the question all the time. "So, Clay, why did Princeton drop wrestling?" I was even asked in March 2002 in Albany, New York, right after I had watched Greg Parker '03 create Princeton athletic history by beating an undefeated and top-seeded Michigan wrestler to become the Ivy's only finalist in the N.C.A.A. Division I wrestling championships, and Princeton's sixth finalist in 50 years. The win brought tears to my eyes.

When athletic director Bob Myslik '61 announced on March 17, 1993, that Princeton's varsity wrestling program would be discontinued at the end of the season, he cited a list of reasons, which included "budget realities" and that wrestling was "a sport whose elimination would not create gender inequity." At the time, I didn't buy it. Any wrestler knows that to cut weight you don't cut off your feet. The Friends of Princeton Wrestling offered to endow the sport, but the University wouldn't accept the offer. The Friends attacked each reason on the list and showed how they didn't hold up, except for one — gender equity.

That same year, women gymnasts and volleyball players filed a joint Title IX lawsuit against Brown University for eliminating their teams to close a budget deficit. Title IX, signed into law by President Nixon more than 30 years ago, prohibits any person from being excluded from participation in, or being denied the benefits of, or being subjected to discrimination under, any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance on the basis of sex. It is a law that allowed the Brown women to sue to reinstate their sports but not the Princeton men.

In 1979 the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education (OCR) created a three-prong test to measure compliance in athletic participation. It was intended to measure compliance in stages. Prong one is "proportionality," where the ratio of individual athletic opportunities by sex is "substantially proportionate" to their respective student enrollments. The second prong is whether a school can show "a history and continuing practice of program expansion" for the underrepresented sex, and the third is whether a school can demonstrate "that the interests and abilities of [the underrepresented sex] have been fully and effectively accommodated."

During the 1990s, the OCR enforced its regulations and initiated investigations and conducted reviews of schools. Understandably, college administrators were running scared, since men far outnumbered women in athletics. They have since been establishing gender quotas through a combination of eliminating men's teams, capping men's rosters, and adding women's programs.

If Princeton was going to hold down its athletic budget by cutting a team, it certainly wasn't going to be a woman's team. And so Princeton's wrestling program became one of 170 collegiate varsity wrestling programs to be dropped since 1972.

At the time I did not know much about Title IX. When Gary Walters became Princeton's athletic director in August 1994, I knew we were going to have to address the law's enforcement policies if we were ever going to reinstate wrestling. Walters quickly realized he had two tigers by the tail — unrelenting wrestling alumni and aggressive enforcement of Title IX.

Bringing back wrestling, an all-male sport, would increase the ratio of men to women athletes, violating prong one. Program expansion was still possible, despite Princeton's rapid advancement in women's athletics following coeducation in 1969. Ken Fairman, athletic director during the first three years of coeducation, jump-started women's athletics with seven women's programs. Royce Flippin '56, athletic director from 1972 to 1979, added another four, bringing Princeton's count to 11 teams in 10 years. Myslik added another five women's teams between 1979 and 1992.

However, past "history" of expansion was not enough. Princeton had to show a "continuing practice" of athletic program expansion to meet OCR's second test.

Walters initiated a program in December 1995 to "strengthen gender equity" by upgrading women's water polo from club to varsity status, and creating a new women's lightweight crew. Today, with wrestling back on solid ground, the Friends of Wrestling continue to raise money for the endowment needed to fold the program back into the university budget and look forward to celebrating 100 years of Princeton wrestling in 2005. Women's water polo and lightweight crew are flourishing.

One month after Walters announced his initiative, the OCR issued a "clarification" to the three-part test, which established an "irrefutable presumption of compliance" only with statistical proportionality, or meeting a sex quota. Later that year armed with the new OCR directive, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling against Brown University and found that it had discriminated against the women volleyball players and gymnasts in violation of Title IX. When in 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court decided it would not review the ruling, gender quotas in college athletics became the rule of the land.

Princeton is one of a handful of colleges that has reinstated a men's athletic program, while providing an enviable offering of women's athletics. According to its Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act report for 2000-01, Princeton undergraduates competed in 20 men's and 18 women's varsity sports. Princeton ranked 24th in the Sears Directors' Cup standings, the highest of any nonscholarship institution. It has been the highest-ranking nonscholarship school seven of the last eight years. In 2000-01, Princeton won 14 Ivy championships, split evenly between men and women. Sports Illustrated for Women selected Princeton as one of the top 10 best institutions for female athletes. It was the only nonscholarship school on the list. Yet, Princeton fails to meet Title IX's compliance test. While 48 percent of undergraduates are women, only 37 percent of athletes are, despite Princeton's concerted efforts to meet the athletic interests of its female students. There are 42 participants on the men's lacrosse team but only 27 on the women's squad. Even dropping football with the most men of any sport would not "correct" the women's participation ratio, bringing it up to only 40 percent. In the absence of adding any more female athletes to existing teams or more female sports, Princeton would have to eliminate 187 male athletes in addition to 106 football players to meet the gender quota and reach Title IX's "safe harbor" for compliance, an action which would do nothing to advance women's athletics.

Fortunately, Princeton and other private institutions can no longer be sued for "disparate discrimination" as Brown had been because of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2001 Alexander v. Sandoval decision. The decision has the effect of limiting Title IX to barring only intentional discrimination and, as Stu Taylor '70 critiqued in The National Journal, restores to Congress "the power to pass laws with the expectation that they will be enforced as written, rather than as someone thinks they should be written."

No men's sport is secure under the current enforcement policy governing Title IX. Proportionality was an underlying factor in Princeton's dropping wrestling in 1993, and, left unchecked, will change men's sports as we know them at Princeton and throughout the country.

H. Clay McEldowney '69 captained the varsity wrestling team as a senior and, as chairman of the Friends of Princeton Wrestling in the 1990's, led the effort to save the wrestling program. Named Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Man of the Year with Eric Pearson '87 in 1997, he serves with Pearson on the board of directors of the Washington, D.C.- based College Sports Council, a named plaintiff in a Title IX lawsuit filed against the U.S. Department of Education in January 2002.