May 3, 2011

Fencers Respond to Title IX Story on Equality in Cornell Program

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The Cornell fencing team is still reeling nearly a week after The New York Times ran a front page piece on gender equity, calling the program’s ethics into question.

In the first part of a series examining compliance with Title IX, which requires colleges to field an athletic roster that is proportional to the enrollment on campus, The Times focused on Cornell’s varsity women’s fencing squad and the men’s club team that competes with them during practice.

The story asserts that with women making up nearly 57 percent of the student body in American universities, athletics programs have been forced to find alternative routes to achieving gender equity, one of which is known as roster management. This practice entails counting men as women for purposes of complying with Title IX. Under the law, men who “receive coaching and practice with women” should be counted as female athletes, according to The Times article, which cited David A. Bergeron of the Office of Postsecondary Education. This is the case for the members of Cornell’s men’s club fencing team, who train with the varsity women, but are not allowed to compete in events.

“[The author] was asking whether it bothered me to be classified as a woman in the context of practicing with the girls … and I said that didn’t really bother me at all,” said junior Michael Fotinatos, a member of the club team, who was interviewed in a video supplement to The Times’ article. “There was nothing being done that was in the wrong. We were simply abiding by the guidelines that were presented to us, and given the unique situation of the Cornell men’s fencing team, it actually provided opportunities for the guys that would not have otherwise been afforded.”

According to Fotinatos, one troubling part of the story was an assertion by The Times that Cornell had “exploited a loophole” with its roster management tactics, language that the fencer found to be suggestive of wrongdoing. Since the men’s team is classified as a club sport by the University, the squad receives its funding from the Student Activities Finance Commission, and must pay for uncovered expenses out-of-pocket. The fact that the men are not eligible for varsity status allows them to participate on the practice squad, Fotinatos explained.

“The girls are excellent practice [partners] for us, and I have been told that we are a great benefit to them as well, so there really is a mutually beneficial relationship” he said.

“We really do respect each other as fencers. There is no … attitude that the varsity team is better than the club members,” added senior foil Analise Peleggi, who plays on the women’s varsity squad. “I don’t think [any athletes] knew they were listed as women … but I don’t think it would ever, ever be the case that some female fencer … wouldn’t be allowed on [the varsity team] because there were too many guys.”

The fencing program’s first involvement with Title IX came in 1993, when both teams had their varsity status threatened as a result of looming budget cuts. While the women were able to remain a varsity sport due to the need for gender equity under the law, the men’s team became a club.

For the fencers, the greatest impact of The Times’ piece was the inclusion of Cornell’s program — one that had never been accused of violating Title IX — in a story that cited the illegal actions of other universities related to gender equity.

“I spoke to one individual who said that he was very interested in coming to Cornell, but he was having second thoughts given that he thought things were being done underhandedly here,” Fotinatos said. “The fact that people are now viewing us as some kind of gender separatist or anti-feminist organization is really disappointing because … it is a gross misrepresentation of what this team really stands for.”

Peleggi and Fotinatos were unaware of whether or not the University would make any administrative changes in response to the story. Cornell Athletics did not respond to a request for comment.

Original Author: Evan Rich