Women's Sports Are Scoring Despite a Tilted Playing Field

Male athletes still dominate, but women's programs are gaining money and access

THE doors are opening for women athletes. But are they opening wide enough?

That's the new question in women's sports circles. It is the nut issue in Providence, R.I., where a court will be asked this spring to determine if the Brown University women's sports program receives the same treatment as the men's. It is the key question being asked in Congress, where Rep. Cardiss Collins (D) of Illinois has introduced legislation requiring institutions of higher education to disclose their spending on men's and women's athletic programs.

``Women are only getting a third of all the participation opportunities at both the high school and the college level,'' says Donna Lopiano, executive director of the New York-based Women's Sports Foundation (WSF). In a study of gender equity, the National Collegiate Athletic Association found that the average college athletic department spends only 20 percent of its operations budget of $1.31 million on women's programs and that women get an average of $505,246 in scholarship money, compared with $1.3 million for men.

``The evidence is clear: Institutions of higher education in this nation are calling a timeout on their women athletes,'' says Representative Collins.

According to some of the elite sportswomen attending WSF's annual awards dinner recently, there is plenty of good news, however.

In my interviews with women competing in 11 sports, eight had positive views and three had negative views about their status vis-a-vis men. Such a small survey sample has little scientific merit, but it does suggest the changes that have taken place since 1972, when Congress passed legislation - called Title IX - mandating gender equality in higher education.

``We've gotten to the point where the difference is small enough so people don't want to make a big deal and appear to be whining,'' says Kathryn Reith, WSF's assistant executive director.

For example: In women's soccer, which has 700,000 women playing at all levels, 59 new college programs for women began this year. Many colleges now offer scholarships to soccer-playing women the same way they help football-playing men.

Julie Foudy, one of the nation's top female soccer players, says the changes over the last six years ``are miraculous.''

When Foudy started playing at the national level six years ago, the women's team would have one or two tours a year and had to fight for funding. Now that women's soccer has been accepted as a medal sport in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, though, ``the opportunities are being thrown at us,'' Foudy says.

Women's ice hockey is also experiencing fast growth, particularly since it was accepted as an Olympic sport for the 1998 Winter Games in Nogano, Japan. Cammi Granato, who plays on the US National women's hockey team that won the gold at the US Olympic Festival this year, says the women's grants from the United States Olympic Organizing Committee are the same for both sexes.

In hearings this past June before a congressional subcommittee, though, women from Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., recalled how they'd had to buy their own skates and equipment while the university paid for the men's varsity-team gear.

There are also no signs of a women's professional hockey league to absorb post-college players. Granato was invited to try out for a minor-league East Coast men's team. But ``I'm a forward,'' she says, ``and it would be a little hard to jump in with guys who are 6 foot 2 and trying to kill me.'' Instead, she will play at the collegiate level in graduate school.

The Olympics have also been a boost for women boardsailors (windsurfers). At tournaments, Jayne Fenner, the 1992 Tudor Female Boardsailor of the Year, says there are now as many women on the boards as men. Prize money is small for both sexes, though it's higher for men. Fenner says that the top female sailors get equal time at a special camp to prepare them for international competitions.

Other athletes see advances as well: Kayaker Jennifer Hearn says women get equal treatment but men have more classes in which to compete. And aerial skier Tamara St. Germain doesn't see much difference between men and women in her sport in terms of prize money. ``There is not that much money yet for either the men or women,'' she says.

In the case of beach volleyball, now an Olympic sport, the female athletes say they have made some major strides. The prize money is lower for women, and Karolyn Kirby, ranked the top women's beach volleyball player on the US circuit since 1991, says women are still about seven to eight years behind the men. ``But we've made similar and, in some cases, larger strides quicker than the men did,'' Kirby says.

Some of the female athletes say their sports are lagging, though. Rower Lisa Carey says that men's programs at the college level tend to get newer equipment and more funding. ``I think the programs tend to be geared toward the men,'' she says.

And in a relatively new arena, female wrestler Tricia Saunders says her sport is almost entirely men. Women who want to wrestle have had to go to court to force school boards to let them compete. The coaches ``are fearful of the pain the boys will go through if they lose to a girl,'' Saunders says.

But even women wrestlers are starting to see some progress. This year, after a battle with the sport's national governing body, there are now training stipends for women, and they no longer have to pay to compete in their own championships. But they still have to pay their way to international competitions, which can cost $6,000-8,000 per year.

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