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Despite great gains, is there now a Title IX stall?

The fight for progress in women’s athletics continues — just as it does here for Harvard-Radcliffe’s Lenica Morales in a rugby match against Columbia.

stan grossfeld/globe staff

The fight for progress in women’s athletics continues — just as it does here for Harvard-Radcliffe’s Lenica Morales in a rugby match against Columbia.

The Harvard-Radcliffe rugby football club boasts of being “bad-ass” in its recruiting posters. Sometimes a fist will even find a chin, as it did in a recent Saturday afternoon contest against Columbia.

But last year’s Division 2 national champions are breaking ground, not faces. Harvard recently created an NCAA Division 1 varsity women’s rugby team for the 2013-14 academic year. That gives Harvard a total of 21 women’s varsity teams — more intercollegiate opportunities for women than any other higher-learning institution in the country.

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Harvard is the first Ivy League school and the largest in the nation to change its women’s rugby program from club to varsity status. The process took 18 months.

“The big thing is that this is more than just about us,” says Sarah MacVicar, a veteran player and the team president. “This is about rugby in the country, that’s what is so exciting to me. Seeing rugby elevated to varsity status is something that we will see translated to other programs as well.”

MacVicar knows the score, politically.

“A lot of schools are not in [Title IX] compliance, and it is a big issue and it is something I hope will change sooner rather than later,’’ she said. “But the good thing is we are seeing progress being made.”

By all accounts, Title IX had a wonderful 40th birthday. The London Summer Olympics were Title IX’s crowning achievement. For the first time, Team USA had more women than men. The women also won more medals than the men (58-45, including 29 golds to the men’s 17).

In 1971, the year before President Nixon signed the historic legislation to prevent discrimination based on gender in educational institutions, there were 310,000 female athletes in America’s high schools and colleges. Now there are 3,373,000.

But one of the most powerful women in sports says we are in the midst of a “Title IX stall.”

“It’s good that people are celebrating, it’s great — but what they are celebrating is progress, not equal opportunity,” said Donna Lopiano, president of the consulting firm Sports Management Resources, and the former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Although Lopiano gives kudos to Harvard for adding women’s rugby, she is critical of the Ivy League in general. None of the eight Ivy League schools is in compliance, she says.

She calls it part of a nationwide “conspiracy of institutions.”

Females make up 57 percent of students yet receive only 43 percent of the opportunities in athletics, according to Lopiano.

The “Title IX stall” is hidden in the tall reeds, said Lopiano, a former softball great who is a member of the National Sports Hall of Fame.

“In six of the past eight years, more male college athletics participation has been added than female opportunities, despite the continued underrepresentation of females,” said Lopiano.

Getting the other Ivies to adopt women’s rugby has been a painfully slow process.

“While women have consistently demonstrated a desire to play and a proficiency to play, there’s no interest in accommodating them,” said Kerri Heffernan, Brown’s women’s rugby coach. “I was talking to an administrator that just couldn’t wrap her head around contact sports. Generational people are saying, ‘Eww, why would a woman want to play a contact sport?’ ”

“What’s happening is, at these institutions, nobody is policing them, they are depending on nobody looking.”

Myths and compliance

Lopiano is always looking. She started the battle for equality when she was 11 years old. She was the first draft pick as a Little League pitcher in Stamford, Conn., a female Whitey Ford in the late 1950s. While in line to get her uniform, an adult clutching a rule book told her, “Guess what? Girls aren’t allowed to play.”

She wept that day, but she has been fighting ever since, both in court and out, in Congress and in the Office of Civil Rights.

According to Lopiano, the biggest misconception about Title IX is that it cuts men’s programs. Football and basketball are by far the biggest-budgeted sports. Most lose money — lots of money.

“The arms race in men’s football and basketball has forced Division 1 FBS institutions into the position of spending 78 percent of men’s operating budgets on football and basketball, 68 percent in FCS, and 55 percent in non-football Division institutions,” she said.

“These are the richest athletic programs in the country. They can’t cut women’s sports because they are afraid of a lawsuit. They are not adding more women’s sports to come into compliance with Title IX. So they drop men’s non-revenue sports and blame it on Title IX.”

Jeff Orleans, former commissioner of the Ivy League (1984-2009), served as a lawyer who helped craft the original Title IX legislation, and he agrees.

“You see it all the time,” he said. “Schools that are playing big-time football are losing money, do eliminate sports and say it’s because of Title IX. I think that’s ingenuous at best and incorrect at worst.”

Leo Kocher, president of the American Sports Council, said Title IX has “morphed into a strict body-count quota system. You’re not saving money, all you’re doing is telling boys to clean out their lockers because they’re male. It’s not about equal opportunities, it’s about equal numbers. If a school is not proportional, they are subject to a lawsuit they pretty much can’t win.”

Compliance is legally met by satisfying just one aspect of a three-pronged test: proportionality, program expansion, and meeting the interests of the underrepresented sex.

Penn has the biggest gap in proportionality in the Ivy League, according to Equity in Athletics Data Analysis. It would have to add 259 females to achieve proportionality among its 1,050 total athletes.

But according to Penn’s director of athletic communication Mike Mahoney, the school is “substantially compliant in two prongs.”

Mahoney said, “We have added women’s sports at a greater rate than men’s sports in recent years, and we survey students as to any unmet interests and abilities. There has not been a push from our [rugby] club program to upgrade to varsity status.’’

But in Lopiano’s eyes, that is not being compliant.

“ ‘No one asked’ is not a defense,” she said. “Prongs 2 and 3 require that Penn regularly assess the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex — both females attending Penn and among their recruiting pool — and if there is interest in females playing ice hockey or bowling, etc., to offer those sports.”

“This is an issue of educational equity, and asking those in need to define their need is the great trap,” says Heffernan. “Getting young women to counter coaches, to navigate the landscape of their university administrations and USA Rugby is tough.

“I also think young women are different. These are kids who grew up in well-organized sports programs; as such they are less likely to fight administrations who they often see as benevolent. They tend to see adults as having their best interest at heart, even when they’re getting royally ripped off.”

Lack of leaders

Leadership roles for women seem to be disappearing quicker than a rugby ball tossed into a scrum.

According to “Women in Intercollegiate Sport, a Longitudinal National Study, by Acosta/Carpenter,” in 1972, 9 of 10 coaches for women’s teams were female. In 2012, slightly less than 1 of 2 coaches for women’s teams is female. But 97 of 100 coaches of men’s teams are male.

But Kocher of the American Sports Council sees this as a non-issue.

“I think they should just hire the best coach available,” he said.

Bryan Hamlin, acting coach for Harvard women’s rugby, says he understands the dilemma.

“To be fair, there probably aren’t enough women coaches,’’ he said. “But in rugby, it has been a predominately male sport.”

Only one of the eight Ivy League schools has a female athletic director. Nationally, the figure is almost 21 percent, according to the Acosta/Carpenter study.

“There is a good-old-boys club,” said Janet Fink, an associate professor in Sport Management at the University of Massachusetts and an expert on gender equality. “When an athletic club’s structure doesn’t include any females in it, your AD is a male and associate AD are all male, then they are much more likely to have a higher percentage of male coaches.”

Fink says sexism is rampant in sports. She says, for example, that the new Bikini Basketball Association “drives me nuts.”

But Lopiano stays at an even keel. As an ex-athlete who has competed at championship levels in four sports, she never loses her cool.

“Two things that force institutions to do the right things are lawsuits and bad press — public embarrassment,” she said with a smile.

At 66, she has no intentions of slowing down.

“It takes three generations to make real social change — that’s 60 years, and we’ve only had 40,” she said.

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.
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