The biggest contest in collegiate sports this fall might well take place in a courtroom miles away from any playing field. And there won't be a football or field hockey stick in sight.
The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) has called a foul on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for its foray into women's athletics, and is trying to block the NCAA from holding women's championships.
It claims the NCAA has violated antitrust laws in the way it has gone about initiating its women's programs and in the way it plans to run them. The AIAW contends that the NCAA will drive it out of business, giving the NCAA a monopoly on both men's and women's intercollegiate sports. It is seeking a preliminary injunction to halt the NCAA's fall championship schedule, slated to begin Nov. 7 , although it appears unlikely that an injunction will be granted by then.
The 75-year old NCAA, long the only significant voice in men's intercollegiate sports, has considered the idea of inaugurating women's championships several times in recent years as women's sports have come into their own.
But it is the 10-year-old AIAW that has done the groundwork in women's intercollegiate sports. AIAW officials say they have taken a radically different approach to women's sports than the NCAA has to men's. The NCAA, they argue, has taken a high-visibility, high-pressure approach; the AIAW has used a more low-key approach, geared more toward the needs of women as both athletes and students. The AIAW has much more stringent limits on recruiting procedures and athletic scholarships, which, its leaders contend, help save women's programs from the recruiting excesses and academic scandals in men's sports.
The most obvious difference between the two sports associations lies in their financial resources: The NCAA's 1979-80 operating budget was 25 times that of the AIAW. This means that the NCAA can pay a good part of the way for teams to compete in its women's championships at no extra cost to member schools -- a strong lure to women's programs. And since most current AIAW members are also members of the NCAA, many schools have felt it financially imprudent not to put both programs in the NCAA. In effect, the lucrative men's programs are subsidizing the women's.
''The AIAW is not saying that the NCAA shouldn't start women's programs,'' argues Donna Lopiano, the association's president and women's athletic director at the University of Texas at Austin. ''But under the antitrust laws, they can't use their dominance in men's programs to finance the women's programs.''
In setting up a women's program, the NCAA violated its own bylaws, the lawsuit alleges, since the NCAA constitution currently limits its jurisdiction to male athletes. The suit also charges that the NCAA will use $2.5 million from its men's program to finance the women's, and that member colleges in effect will subsidize women's program whether they want to or not.
NCAA president James Frank, who is also president of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., says in a telephone interview that he thinks that if the AIAW folds, women's athletics could be amply served by the NCAA and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, which has lived unobtrusively in the NCAA's shadow for a number of years.
Dr. Frank calls the AIAW lawsuit ''frivolous and unfortunate.'' He says he finds nothing wrong with using money from the men's program to finance the women's -- ''it just so happens that the NCAA has the income to do that.''
''It should be obvious that the women's programs are not going to generate the money needed to finance them,'' he adds.