Women in College Sports

Twenty years after a law mandating equal treatment in education, women who are student athletes still get shortchanged; but change is coming

COLLEGE sports have become a major source of revenue and entertainment in the United States. Public interest in intercollegiate football and men's basketball has created a huge industry sponsored by many of the nation's institutions of higher learning.

Hidden in this explosion are the inadequate efforts of our nation's major colleges and universities to provide athletic opportunities to women.

In every possible area of comparison, women have been denied any semblance of equitable treatment. From team sponsorship to athletic scholarships, coaching salaries, facilities, academic support, marketing, promotions, and medical care, female athletes have been given short shrift. This discrimination is illegal.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity receiving federal funds, i.e., nearly all institutions of higher learning. In a current reform movement, college athletics has begun to address its own gender gap.

Twenty years after its passage, there is still "massive, blatant, wholesale violation of Title IX," according to Arthur Bryant, executive director of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. Recent events, though, presage changes.

In February, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that monetary damages can be awarded for violations of Title IX. The ruling puts teeth into the law, which heretofore has been only sporadically enforced. Title IX suits - or their threat - have focused national attention on institutions such as the Universities of Oklahoma, New Hampshire, and New Mexico, Brown University, and Bowdoin and William and Mary Colleges.

In March, the National Collegiate Athletic Association released results of its gender-equity survey, documenting the disparity between men's and women's athletic programs at its member institutions. While total enrollment of women and men is virtually equal, male athletes outnumber female athletes by more than two to one and receive twice as many athletic scholarships as women. Men's teams get more than three-quarters of overall operating funds and over 80 percent of recruiting dollars.

Many who read these numbers are pleased to note that women's scholarships nearly match their participation ratio. However, a federal judge ruled in 1987 that differences in participation rates cannot be used to justify differences in scholarship offerings. Clearly, the courts understand that if more women were offered athletic scholarships, there would be more women participants.

Another defense proffered for these disparities is the uniqueness of football in terms of squad size and revenue generation. In fact, 89 percent of NCAA football teams do not generate enough revenue to support themselves, much less women's teams or other men's teams. Instead, football programs spend the lion's share of athletic budgets.

HE NCAA has appointed a Gender Equity Task Force to develop recommendations as to how equity can be achieved through NCAA legislation. Individual institutions, too, should address gender issues on their campuses. In May, the University of Iowa set a precedent by committing to provide, within five years, athletic opportunities to women and men in numbers that mirror the institution's female-to-male enrollment.

The Justice Department's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is responsible for the enforcement of Title IX, although under the Reagan and Bush administrations very little has been accomplished. Pressure on OCR has increased, though, as Congress has taken an interest in the issue.

In April, the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Consumer Protection, and Competitiveness conducted a hearing focused on equity for women in college athletics. (The subcommittee held a series of hearings on other issues related to college sports last year.) The panel has asked the congressional General Accounting Office to conduct a survey of sports personnel practices, including compensation and gender and minority employment.

Several additional ingredients affect the context of the debate regarding women's rights to equal athletic participation. Revelations of the fiscal crisis in college athletics departments, heightened faculty research on equity in athletics, increased media attention to women's issues, and the threat of state and federal intervention in the administration of athletics all have undermined traditional arguments justifying disparate treatment for female and male student athletes.

According to a Louis Harris survey conducted for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, 85 percent of college and university presidents surveyed believe that "women should be given the same number of opportunities to compete on intercollegiate athletic teams as men."

Overwhelming majorities of the public (85 percent), athletic directors (88 percent), and members of Congress (87 percent) agree. Lowest levels of support were reported from coaches and booster-club leaders at 72 percent, still a strong majority. The strength of these convictions is about to be tested.

Gender-equity issues raise fundamental questions concerning the purpose of intercollegiate athletics and their role in higher education. If college sports are to be supported for the intrinsic benefits that accrue to participants - as opposed to extrinsic reasons such as profits and visibility - there can be little justification for denying women the same opportunities as men to benefit from athletic participation.

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