Desperately Seeking Gender Balance

Forced to achieve equity, colleges now hunt for alternatives to cutting men's sports

When his university made national headlines last month by eliminating four men's sports teams, Brian Wagner was shocked.

"I said, impossible, no way," recalls the catcher of the California State University, Northridge (CSUN) Matadors. The team was recently ranked in the top 20 NCAA baseball teams in the US. "They're not going to drop a team that finally is playing with the best in the country," says Wagner.

But in a desperate effort to comply with gender-equity laws and a deficit-ridden sports budget, CSUN did just that, axing men's baseball, volleyball, soccer, and swimming in a single stroke.

"The bottom line is there are laws I need to comply with and budget constraints I need to meet," said CSUN athletic director Paul Bubb. The action produced three days of banner headlines in Los Angeles and has helped raise the pulse of athletic directors coast to coast.

Taken in tandem with a recent Supreme Court decision upholding bans on gender discrimination in all federally funded education programs, the CSUN episode highlights the questions now faced at dozens of American institutions of higher learning: To even out lopsided opportunities for men and women in college sports, will more existing men's programs have to go? If not, how will cash-strapped universities come into compliance with the gender-fairness law known as Title IX?

"There is probably more compelling impetus for action on gender equity in sports [at universities] right now than ever," says Janet Justice at the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The combination of the Supreme Court ruling, just-released progress reports on the 25th anniversary of Title IX, and concerted efforts by women's groups is driving the renewed action, she says. New laws granting plaintiffs court costs are also expected to encourage law suits.

Still, Ms. Justice and others note progress. Today, more than 100,000 women participate in intercollegiate athletics, a fourfold increase since 1971, according to the US Department of Education. In 1995, women were 37 percent of college student athletes compared with 15 percent in 1972.

But, says a "Report Card," released last month by the Women's Sports Foundation, the majority of colleges are allocating resources and opportunities "at a roughly 2 to 1 ratio between male athletes and female athletes."

In interviews with several athletic directors across the country, most say that CSUN's tactic of killing off men's programs to achieve equity is not an option. "Every athletic department I know of is strapped for cash and trying to come up with creative solutions to this problem," says John Thompson, athletic director for the University of Texas, El Paso. His institution is one of 25 colleges and universities listed as failing to comply with Title IX in a National Women's Law Center sex-discrimination complaint filed in June. "None wants to kill off men's programs," says Mr. Thompson, "but rather most are searching for ways to add women."

Such solutions include new methods of fund-raising, such as renting out sports facilities to nonsports groups. They include laws that allow tuition waivers (state money designated for women's scholarships), additional grants-in-aid for women, and limiting scholarships for men. The NCAA in 1994 cut the allowable number of football scholarships, for instance, from 95 to 85.

Some schools are voluntarily capping the number of participants in men's sports and trying to tailor athletic programs to the needs of local populations.

"We found that diminishing the number of men on major squads such as football and baseball has helped save money as well as meet equity numbers," says Al Bowls, athletic director of California State University, Fresno. "We are also sponsoring such events as [Christian evangelical] Promise Keepers, and outside soccer matches to raise revenue."

When men's sports are cut, gender balancing may be a convenient scapegoat but not the actual reason. Many observers have noted that a change in public sports appetites is the culprit behind dropping men's gymnastics and wrestling at several schools. In CSUN's case, the financial shortfall was due in part to boosting funds for its football program to gain entry into a more prestigious league.

"It is a myth that the growth of women's sports has been responsible for the elimination of men's sports," says Donna Lopiano executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. The WSF's study of 767 institutions concluded: "The downfall of many nonrevenue men's programs can be tied to misallocation of funds rather than to the rise of women's sports."

Because of increased attention, many feel a new era of scrutiny is ahead for the finances of men's sports. That may help curb spending on things such as fancy recruiting guides, video tapes of games, training equipment, travel, and housing. Such reforms, could also provide savings that could support women's sports.

"There is a keep-up-with-the-Joneses mentality in men's college sports," say Cary Groth, athletic director at Northern Illinois University. "If one school has a 200-page, four color recruiting guide, suddenly every school has to have one to keep up. The schools would welcome such reforms because everyone could save."

With the added teeth of recently enacted, school-budget disclosure laws the impetus for reform is expected to rise. "The crazy thing about this law [Title IX] has been that no school has been forced to do anything until some files a complaint," notes Ms. Groth. "Now, [students and parents] are gaining ammunition to proceed on their own."

HIGH COURT SLAM DUNK

* In April, the Supreme Court eliminated any doubt about the college sports' standard of gender equity.

It left intact a lower-court ruling that Rhode Island's Brown University had discriminated against women athletes. Even though the school had expanded its offerings to women over the years, only 38 percent of its athletic slots went to women while women made up 51 percent of the student population. The court said schools must offer women and men opportunities to participate in proportion to their undergraduate enrollments.

"The Brown case is exceedingly important because a lot of schools who felt they already had large programs for women - but who weren't exactly in parity - were watching and hoping the court would not demand exact compliance," says Susan Hofacre, a sports expert at Robert Morris College, Pittsburgh. "When the Supreme Court left the lower-court decision alone, their hopes disappeared."

Playing Favorites?

A 1995-96

Report Card

on College Sports

* Women's teams received $1 out of every $4 spent on recruiting in the NCAA.

* Men's teams received nearly $3 out of every $4 spent for operating expenses.

* In smaller schools, women's teams got a bigger slice of the total operating budget (38 percent in Division III); in bigger schools, women got a smaller slice (22 percent in Division I-A).

* Since 1978, 1,658 women's sports programs were created in 767 schools. Seventy-four new men's sports programs were started during that period.

* Female athletes received $142 million less in scholarship aid than men on NCAA teams.

* In Division 1-A, the head coaches of NCAA women's teams made 63 cents for every $1 paid to head coaches of men's teams.

Sources: Women's Sports Foundation, NCAA

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