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A League of Fans Special Feature

Donna Lopiano

Dr. Donna Lopiano is the president of Sports Management Resources, a consulting firm that services intercollegiate athletics departments.  She is the former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, serving in that role from 1992-2007.  She also was the University of Texas’ Director of Women’s Athletics for 18 years and is a former president of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).  The Sporting News has regularly named her one of “The 100 Most Influential People in Sports.”  She is widely recognized for her Title IX expertise and her leadership in advocating for gender equity in sports.

Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director, recently interviewed Lopiano on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the enactment of Title IX.

Ken Reed:  People have said you’ve been persistent but never strident in your push for equal opportunity in sports.  How would you describe your style in working for equal opportunity?

Donna Lopiano:  Well, I say things with a smile but I’m highly critical.  While I was with the Women’s Sports Foundation, we were charged with compiling data documenting discrimination against females in sports.  People don’t think of me as being strident because I don’t yell but I always have the facts.

Reed:  Most sports fans, and Americans in general, believe that we’re very close to having achieved equity in sports between the genders.  However, the reality is much different than the perception.  How bad is inequality in sports today?

Lopiano:  I’d say we’re about halfway there, but after 40 years I thought we’d be further along.  In college, 56% of students are females, yet they receive only 43% of the opportunities in athletics.  In addition, men’s sports are growing faster than women’s the last five or six years in terms of opportunities.  However, from a glass is half full perspective, there are millions of more girls participating in sports than there were 40 years ago.

Reed:  After three decades of the gap narrowing, why is the gap between men’s and women’s sports actually growing again for the past several years?

Lopiano:  The primary cause is that a lot of schools that should be complying with Title IX are instead funneling all their money into the football and men’s basketball arms races instead of addressing gender inequities.  The reality is that in recent years men’s opportunities are rising faster than women’s, and so the gap is growing not narrowing.

Reed:  Why do you think the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has been lax in enforcing Title IX?  What can be done to put more teeth into the enforcement of Title IX?

Lopiano:  Enforcement is difficult for the OCR.  Enforcement of Title IX is a huge job.  The OCR isn’t just concerned about athletics.  When you consider all the colleges and high schools in this country, just think how much the OCR office has to cover.  It’s mind-boggling.

The OCR doesn’t have the financial resources or manpower to do random assessments of compliance.  Athletic directors and school presidents need to be more responsible.  A lot of athletic directors and presidents are aware of gender injustices, but they hide in the weeds until they get caught.  The penalty is usually being told to “fix it,” without a financial penalty.

Another factor is that for potential whistleblowers out there – for example, the coaches of girl’s and women’s teams – filing a Title IX complaint is scary.  They fear losing their jobs.

Reed:  Enforcement of Title IX has come about primarily by individual Title IX lawsuits, not OCR enforcement.  Do you believe that will be the case moving forward?

Lopiano:  In general, that’s true when it comes to civil rights laws.  Individuals have to stand up for their rights.  In a democratic society, the onus is on individuals.  We all have to be prepared to stand up for our rights.  That’s how our society works.

Reed:  You’ve been vocal in the past about the media’s role in shaping perceptions of women’s sports.  What do you believe the media’s role should be when it comes to women sports?

Lopiano:  There needs to be more attention paid to the data.  The media should be writing about the data on Title IX compliance and calling out those institutions not complying with the law.  The Women’s Sports Foundation, and other advocacy organizations, have been doing a good job preparing reports on the inequities.  The transparency of the facts is crucial.  That can ignite more media stories.

When those not in compliance with Title IX get some bad press, that’s how institutions change.  Schools not in compliance with Title IX need to be embarrassed by bad press and lawsuits.

Reed:  Who do you think is the most unsung hero through the years in the effort to achieve equal opportunity in sports?

Lopiano:  All the plaintiffs in Title IX cases need to be applauded.  The same goes for all the attorneys that have taken on Title IX cases on a contingency basis.  In addition, there have been a lot of people at advocacy organizations like the AIAW, the Women’s Sports Foundation, the National Association of Girls and Women in Sports, the National Law Center, and others, that have made a significant difference in this cause.

Reed:  What can be done to give Title IX more teeth?

Lopiano:  We need a high school data bill similar to the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) at the college level.  Title IX lawsuits at the college level have been successful because EADA reports can be easily accessed.  They show the raw numbers in college athletics, making it easier to prove discrimination.  They are not even tracking this data at the high school level.  There are no reporting requirements in high school.

Reed:  What do you suggest people do that want to get involved in the gender equity in sports cause?

Lopiano:  You can pick any school district and file an open records request for data.  If girls are being treated unequally in athletics, file a Title IX complaint.  The Women’s Sports Foundation website has instructions on how to file a complaint with the Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.  You can file an anonymous complaint.  You can do it without having your name known.  Once the complaint is filed, the OCR has a specified number of days to begin an investigation.

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