Keeping Score of Gender Equity in College Sports
In 1973, Billie Jean King challenged the 55-year-old tennis champion Bobby Riggs to a match. King, at 29, was a top women's player. During her career she won 20 Wimbledon titles and four U.S. Open titles. But by taking on Riggs, she was hoping to capture a far more elusive victory -- respect for women athletes from the male sports establishment. King did just that, humbling the mouthy Riggs before a national television audience.The same year, 57 lawsuits charged Little League Baseball Inc. with sex discrimination, and the league was forced to admit girls for the first time. It was a heady time for advocates of women's sports, who, for decades, had not been treated equally, or even taken seriously, in the male-dominated sports world. By far, the biggest blow for women's athletics was struck in 1972 with the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments by Congress. The bill required schools that receive federal funding to provide equal opportunities for men and women in their sports programs, and it set off a revolution in women's sports in this country. But the passage of Title IX was only the beginning of the battle, not the end. Even as schools across the nation initially struggled to comply with the law by creating new women's teams, opposition to gender equity hardly disappeared. In fact, in many cases, it only grew more entrenched.Now, almost a quarter-century after the passage of Title IX, the law has done much to help bridge the funding gulf between men's and women's sports. But true equity remains almost unheard of, despite those advances.To understand why, you may need to look no further than the closest football field. As the most expensive and top revenue-producing sport at most colleges, football has remained a sacred cow, an entity apparently largely immune to the gender equity movement in the last 25 years.But there is growing evidence that situation is changing. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body for the vast majority of college sports programs, and the federal government are beginning to enforce Title IX with a vigor that was lacking the first two decades of the law's existence. And that could bring it squarely on a collision course with football and, to a lesser extent, basketball.Now athletic department administrators are struggling to balance the interests of the two, even as their budgets grow tighter. Since the money raised from football often goes to support many -- if not all -- of a school's other teams, reducing spending for gridiron programs is a notion that is bound to whip up a firestorm of opposition. On the other side of the coin, advocates of women's sports insist they do not want to destroy football, they only want equal gym time, uniforms, scholarships, coaching salaries and travel budgets.They want a level playing field.The results of Title IX already are becoming clear. One hundred years after women were excluded from the first modern Olympic games, almost 300 U.S. women competed on this year's U.S. Olympic team, the most ever. Within a year, two professional women's basketball leagues will open play -- the American Basketball League in the winter and the Women's National Basketball Association in the summer of 1997.Before Title IX, during the dark ages of women's athletics, gender equity was not an issue on the court, on the field or in the classroom. "The term didn't even exist. You just did the best you could with what you had," said Debbie Yow, athletic director at the University of Maryland-College Park.When Yow took the job at Maryland, she became the first female A.D. at the university and in the Athletic Coast Conference. When Maryland met the University of Illinois last month, it was the first time two college football teams with women athletic directors met.As a basketball player at North Carolina's Elon College in the early Seventies, Yow never benefited from an athletic scholarship. For women, they didn't exist. "In 1972 there were no scholarships," Yow said. "Women traveled by car, they wore warm-ups that were hand-me-downs from men's programs. There were no full-time coaches."Yow later became a full-time coach, leading the women's basketball team at Oral Roberts University from 1981 to 1983. Yow, whose sisters Kay and Susan coached the 1988 U.S. women's Olympic basketball team, said Title IX paved the way for the success of women at this year's Olympics.The Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta showed not only that women athletes can be competitive, but also that they can sweep the ratings, said Sherri Coale, the new women's basketball coach at the University of Oklahoma.Coale grew up in Healdton, Okla., where girls' sports were popular, and she never thought about not having equal access to the school's facilities. Yet, even in a relatively supportive environment, it was clear the boys came first."We worked around the boys' practice time," Coale said. "We either came in early or practiced during our lunch, or something on the schedule was adjusted, because it was known that the boys had last hour athletics and after school practice."As a coach, Coale sees how things have changed for players."When you're 14-years-old you just practice when you're supposed to," Coale said. "As I look back now I think it could have been a whole lot easier for female athletes." The same goes for female coaches. Lynn Hickey, senior associate athletic director at Texas A& M and former women's basketball assistant coach at OU, started as a girls' basketball coach in a small Missouri town."The superintendent called me in the office, and he said 'I want you to know right now that I don't believe in this Title IX stuff, and if you don't like it, you can go somewhere else,' " Hickey said."But there is no way a superintendent of schools today would call anybody into an office and do that." There is a very good reason why administrators don't openly display the sexist attitude of that small-town superintendent anymore -- such a pronouncement could mean losing federal funding.And the U.S. Department of Education's requirement of yearly spending reports is a way of cracking down on non-compliance. Beginning Oct. 1, schools must submit reports of their expenses on men's and women's sports to the department's Office of Civil Rights.That could shame some schools into action, and give prospective female students a way of comparing universities. Contrary to popular belief, Title IX does not require that schools spend the same amount of money on men's and women's sports, but it requires that schools provide equal opportunities."Title IX doesn't require that you have the same number of men's and women's teams, it doesn't require that you have the same number of male student athletes as female student athletes," said Larry Naifeh, executive associate athletic director at OU."It just simply requires that you not discriminate based upon sex."Title IX established three tests to evaluate schools' compliance, and requires schools to meet only one part of the test to be in compliance. * Schools must show that sports participation opportunities for men and women are proportionate to the overall enrollment. For example, if 49 percent of a school's students are women, near 49 percent of a school's athletes should be women.* Schools must demonstrate a history and continuing practice of expanding its women's programs. If a school has taken actions in the last three years to expand its program, it passes.* Schools must show that the abilities and interests of members of the underrepresented sex have been fully accommodated."Initially schools made a major effort to comply with Title IX," said Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, an East Meadow, N.W., organization started in 1974 to advocate for gender equity in sports."They were afraid that they were going to get penalized with the loss of federal funds. You had three years to come into compliance. Most of them made a good effort."But it didn't last. When schools saw that the government was not punishing schools that did not comply with the law, progress slowed, Lopiano said."In this period between '78 and really 1988 was just a dead stand still," Lopiano said.In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which clearly stated that if any part of a school received federal money, then every program in the school, including athletics, had to prohibit gender discrimination.Still, progress has been slow in coming. In 1992, about 80 percent of the athletic budgets among NCAA Division I-A schools was spent on men's sports. Two years later, only 16 colleges had the same proportion of female students and athletes. Since 1988, more than 70 lawsuits have been filed against schools on behalf of female players and coaches."You had to wait for the first generation of Moms and Dads who grew up knowing that their daughter had equal rights in sports to get married, have kids, for their kids to become 18, 19, 20 years old," Lopiano said."If she's terrific she's going to get a college athletic scholarship to go to school, and you realize that she gets a worse coach and a worse facility. Her school doesn't have soccer, and it doesn't offer scholarships. You say 'what gives?'"While many schools diligently worked toward compliance, most still fall short. In a 1995 USA Today study of 107 universities, only nine passed a test of proportionality. Three were military academies, with smaller numbers of females enrolled. However, Lopiano is quick to say that women's sports have come a long way."In terms of compliance, we're probably half way there," she said."In 1972 you were looking at only one out of every 27 girls in high school played varsity sports. That figure today is one in three. For boys it's one in two."You were looking at colleges that were giving less than 1 percent of all athletic scholarship money to women, and now they're giving roughly 33 to 35 percent."But women athletes still get $179 million a year less than men. Yow concedes that the toughest problem facing athletic directors working to make their programs equitable is finding the money to do it."There's an abundance of talented athletes and of talented coaches for those teams," she said."The challenges for most a.d.s throughout the country is more strictly financial."And for many universities, that means taking a closer look at the "F" word -- football.At the 1993 NCAA football coaches convention, one-fourth of football coaches said that gender equity is the No. 1 problem facing football. By the nature of its sizable teams, football skews efforts to keep men and women athletes proportional to a school's enrollment. NCAA Division I-A schools are allowed to carry 85 scholarship football players. The number will drop to 83 in the 1997 season. Schools must either create more women's teams or expand the women's rosters on existing teams to create a balance.Lopiano suggests cutting the amount of scholarships allowed to football teams and using the funds to support new women's athletic teams. It is necessary to reduce the "standard of living" of men's sports teams and cut benefits to coaches to reach compliance, she said.But cutting non-revenue producing men's sports programs, such as gymnastics and swimming, is not the answer, because it reduces opportunities for students and creates a negative attitude. Lopiano suggests capping the size of teams or limiting the number of walk-ons a team will take.That's what Oklahoma State University athletic director Terry Don Phillips hopes to avoid."That eliminates opportunity for your male athletes that just want to walk on," he said."You'd like for them to have opportunity as well, but at the same time we have got to find a balance."Phillips, who earned a law degree from the University of Arkansas, said he feels strongly it schools must work for gender equity -- and not just for legal reasons."I want my daughter to have the same opportunities as my son," Phillips said."I don't want my son mistreated, but I don't want my daughter mistreated, either. I don't think it does a young female athlete a lot of good if you just have a sport for the sake of the sport, and you can't provide comparable benefits and give her an opportunity to progress and do as well as she possibly can do."The NCAA will be conducting inspections of all Division I schools by 1999. OSU passed that inspection in 1995. OU has yet to be inspected.But despite that get-tough appearance, the NCAA was a latecomer in supporting Title IX. It led early opposition to the legislation, fearing it would threaten sports that produced profits."I think that colleges are starting to look at their athletic budgets and trying to trim the fat a little bit off some of the football programs in order to be more equitable and serve a broader range of their own students, and that's where it's really got to start," said April Osajima, senior program associate for the American Association of University Women. The Washington, D.C.-based organization was formed in 1881, when colleges excluded women from their alumni organizations."Unfortunately, it's difficult for some men to not feel like they have to give something up when women are joining athletics, especially with college budgets being as tight as they are."At schools such as OU and OSU, the entire sports program is dependent to a large degree upon revenues generated by football. In 1995, 29 percent of OSU's athletes were female, and they received 28 percent of athletic scholarships. Forty-six percent of the undergraduate enrollment was female that year."I guess dollars have always been tight," he said."Twenty five years from now we'll be saying they're still tight, but we've just got to find the answer and do it."At OU, the numbers were slightly better. In 1995, female students made up 45 percent of the enrollment, while 29 percent of the athletes were female. They received 34 percent of athletic scholarships.The numbers of female athletes and scholarships for both schools will increase with the addition of women's soccer this fall.Nationally, women made up 49 percent of the enrollment at NCAA Division I schools in 1995. Thirty-three percent of the schools' athletes were female, and they received 35 percent of athletic scholarships. Those figures represent a dramatic increase from three years earlier, when only 29 percent of the athletes were female, and they received 28 percent of athletic scholarships.OU demonstrated its commitment to gender equity in April when the school's Board of Regents passed a gender equity action plan. The plan includes the establishment of women's soccer this year and yearly reviews of participation rates.In 1974-75, OU spent $40,000 on its women's athletic teams. Twenty years later, the women's teams expenditures amounted to $3.6 million of the athletic department's $19.7 million total. Part of the budget goes toward the expansion of weight training and sports medicine facilities, an on-campus softball field, and renovations of women's locker rooms and coaches' offices. OU fields 10 men's and 10 women's sports.OU President David Boren strongly supported the school's gender equity action plan."We have a strong commitment to gender equity at the University of Oklahoma and have adopted a plan to establish our goal for full compliance with Title IX both in law and in spirit," Boren said."The process we have established for our athletic department is based not only on legal requirements but was designed with the needs of our students in mind."But the importance of women's sports, which rarely generate profits and often fall behind men's sports in fan support, easily can be underestimated. In 1990, the women's basketball program at OU was dropped in a move that brought howls of outrage from supporters of women's athletics nationwide. Embarrassed university officials quickly reversed their decision and reinstated the program."Title IX I guess you would have to say was a factor, but it was because of the public interest that was expressed at that time that said that we should keep that program that hadn't been previously expressed, that had us reinstate it," Naifeh said.Schools find now that marketing is a key component to filling the stands. Many, including OU, have marketing departments within their sports programs.The University of Tennessee is among the leaders in that area. Its women's basketball team holds the record for the highest attendance at a single women's basketball game, as 24,563 fans filled the arena at a 1987 game against the University of Texas. Louisiana Tech and Stanford also have built a strong following of loyal fans. But gaining fan support takes time."A women's basketball program would probably have to be more successful than would a men's basketball program at the same institution, just because there is not a long-standing tradition of attending the games," Maryland's Yow said."But certainly if a women's program became successful with some marketing efforts, they will generate fan support."Women's sports also are benefiting from more TV exposure. ESPN broadcast the NCAA women's basketball tournament this year an plans to expand its coverage in 1997."Slowly, but surely, we've been adding hours of additional women's programming each year, and most of it begins at the college level," said Dean Diltz of ESPN's communications department."We're doing it because we want to and there's a need for it, and that's improving with the success of the women's tournament."And the success of women athletes at the Olympics. Not only did U.S. women fare well at this summer's Olympics, they also won the ratings battle. The women's gymnastics final earned the highest Olympic ratings since 1976.Women set another record at the Olympics. More than 76,000 fans gathered in Athens, Ga., for the Olympic women's soccer finals, the largest crowd at any Olympic soccer match.And if fans support women athletes at the Olympics, they can support them at OU, Coale believes."This year's Olympics was a perfect example that women can succeed on the athletic field, and I think it opened a lot of eyes around the country about how popular it can be to watch women excel in the athletic arena," she said.One of the most unlikely success stories in women's athletics is Texas A&M, which first admitted women as students in 1963.But by 1995, the Aggies had more women athletes and more on athletic scholarship than either OU or OSU. That year, 45 percent of students were female, 36 percent of the athletes were female and they received 40 percent of the total athletic scholarships.And all this has been accomplished without sacrificing the quality of the football program, as the Aggies continue to field one of the nation's elite gridiron programs."We really feel good about our program here as far as what we've done about equity, especially when you look at our background," said Lynn Hickey, the school's senior associate athletic director."If you look 20 years ago, equity for us, we would have been able to have one athletic team. Last year in the freshman class there were more women than men for the first time in the history of the school."The school has 10 women's sports and only nine for men. In 1992, the school added women's soccer, and the team now is ranked ninth in the country. All its women's teams traditionally are national powers, except cross country track.Now, the school is concentrating on marketing and promotions that will help build fan support.Hickey was the assistant women's basketball coach at OU in 1977-78 and grew up playing basketball in Welch, Okla. She credits the changes in attitude and practice made in the wake of Title IX for the trend of more women taking places in sports administration."For a little kid from Welch, Oklahoma to now be senior associate athletic director at Texas A&M University, which is one of the biggest schools in the country, yeah, some good things have happened," Hickey said."We still have a ways to go."