ESPN Columnist and Delaware Alum Asks That Track and Field and Cross Country Be Spared from Title IX

A couple of weeks ago we pointed to a story at Delaware Online that the men’s cross country and track and field teams were in danger of being cut at the University of Delaware. A little while later, we shared an opinion piece written by a member of the women’s cross country team pleading that the team be spared.

And now, earlier today, the story has made it all the way to the top of the sports media food chain thanks to former Delaware cross country runner Jeff Pearlman (at left competing for the Blue Hens), now a columnist for Page 2 at ESPN.com. In short, it may be one of the best pieces written in recent memory about what gets lost when programs like Delaware fall victim to Title IX quotas.

Here’s Pearlman on his arrival at Delaware:

I still remember that first cross country team meeting, sitting in the Carpenter Sports Building in the fall of 1990, surrounded by guys like Eric Albright and Travis Adams and Bryan Denbrock and Marc Washington and Bret Mower — big-time Division I talents whom I could now call teammates. We had 25 or so runners on that squad, all but three or four of whom were completely out of my class. But it didn’t matter. While the football coach preached physicality and the men’s basketball coach preached crisp passing, Fischer preached self-improvement. He rarely spoke of our team winning or losing meets so much as he spoke about individuals winning or losing the battle with their inner selves.We had our stars, but Fischer made the 23rd man feel just as important as the first. When, during a cross country event at Princeton, I sprinted the final 200 yards to avoid placing last, Fischer pulled me aside and, in a surprisingly stern voice, said, “If you had all that energy, why didn’t you use it earlier?” How many other coaches would have stuck around? Would have cared?

And on the reality of the situation today:

Because Delaware’s enrollment is 58 percent female, but its athletes are only 47 percent female, the case will inevitably be made by the NCAA (which will conduct its 10-year review of the Blue Hens athletics program in 2011) that Delaware is violating Title IX.

Under the law, a college or university is required to meet one of three “prongs” to be compliant:

• Provide athletic opportunities that are proportionate to the student male/female enrollment.

• Demonstrate a continual expansion of athletic opportunities for the underrepresented gender.

• Accommodate the interests of the underrepresented gender.

If nothing else, Delaware has demonstrated an impressive expansion of its women’s sports programs, adding women’s soccer in 1990 and women’s rowing in 1999. “But it’s been almost 10 years,” Johnson says. “Our female enrollment has gone up since then.”

So why kill cross country and track and field? Why expunge programs that mean so much to so many? Answer: A flawed law.

Those involved with the NCAA invoke “the spirit of Title IX” with mind-numbing regularity. But in this season of the Spirit of St. Nick, what is the Spirit of St. Myles Brand and the NCAA? If Delaware rids itself of men’s cross country and track and field, it does not help women achieve athletic excellence. It does not show that 8-year-old girl from a small town without youth softball and volleyball and soccer that, one day, there will be places for her to play. It does not place female athletes in the spotlight and promote them as examples of what one can accomplish with hard work.

I don’t blame Delaware. I don’t blame Johnson. I don’t blame the women who want fair athletic representation. I don’t even blame Delaware’s enormous I-AA football program, with its 100 players and 17 coaches and Joe Flacco pep rallies. (Reality: Most football programs generate the funds to keep other programs running.)

No, I blame good intentions gone bad. I blame an operation (the NCAA) that has lost its way. I blame the big business of college sports.

One day, when they’re a little older, I will tell my children about my sprint against Princeton and my historic showing against Lehigh. I’ll show them the blue cap that rests atop my closet and say, “I was a member of the University of Delaware men’s track and cross country teams.”

And they’ll say, “What’s that?”

Here’s hoping it doesn’t turn out that way.

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