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Women's collegiate organization loses members, struggles for survival

The organization that spent the last decade cultivating women's college sports watches as a rival reaps the harvest.That, at least, is how it seems to loyal members of the reeling Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.

The AIAW has not given up, yet it's definitely on the ropes in its battle for control with the powerful National Collegiate Athletic Association, long the major governing body of men's college sports. The doors of the financially troubled AIAW in Washington will temporarily close at the end of this school year and may never reopen.

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The battle between the two groups, which has now reached the courts, can be traced directly to the tremendous growth in women's sports during the 1970s and '80s - especially the explosion of interest in the last couple of years. The status quo began to change in January of 1981 when the NCAA, which had previously left the running of women's sports to the smaller organization, voted to include them in its own programs. The result has been a sharp decline in AIAW-member schools, especially among those with big-time ambitions in such sports as basketball and volleyball.

Although AIAW officials claim that this is not the end of the organization, and that the closing of the office is just a one-year measure, the future does not look promising.

Whether the organization experiences a revival appears to hinge on the outcome of the lawsuit it has filed claiming that the NCAA has taken the excess profits earned in its monopoly of men's athletics to gain an unfair advantage in the women's area. These procedures, the suit claims, violate the Sherman Antitrust Act.

The AIAW notes that the NCAA was founded 76 years ago but had stayed out of women's sports until its 1981 policy switch. Since then AIAW membership has decreased from 961 to 756, with more defections appearing likely to follow in the near future.

Dr. Ted Aceta, director of athletics at Villanova University, a school which elected to stay with the AIAW this year, says that Villanova will switch to the NCAA for the next school year. ''We chose to stay with the AIAW this year,'' says Aceta, ''because we did not know the merits of both groups. We wanted to see which, in the long run, would be more profitable to us and best for our women.'' When asked what the advantages of belonging to the AIAW were, Aceta replied, ''Other than having been with the organization since its beginnings, there may be no advantages.''

Schools such as Villanova are finding it increasingly difficult to ignore the financial benefits and national exposure of NCAA membership. As the pressure to win increases in all colleges and universities and in all men's and women's athletic programs, schools will seemingly be forced into the trend - or else get left behind.

The NCAA says it is concerned simply with what is best for women's athletics. According to Ruth Berkey, the NCAA's director of women's championships, ''The NCAA membership voted for the same services to be given to its women athletes because it was felt that the NCAA can provide several things for women that the AIAW couldn't or wasn't providing: No. 1, visibility, and No. 2, a national staff that is well versed in running championships.'' This was evidenced by the televised NCAA women's basketball championship earlier this year, and the untelevised AIAW women's final.

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The NCAA is far superior financially to the AIAW. Whereas travel expenses to post-season championships are paid for in the NCAA, teams in AIAW competition are not afforded that luxury.

The AIAW, meanwhile, offers a low key approach which it believes is more in the interest of the woman athlete as a student and an individual. It makes a particularly strong effort, for instance, to guard against recruiting and academic scandals of the kind found in men's college sports - scandals which have led many to look upon top male college athletes today as little more than employees of the schools or, at the very least, as glorified athlete-students.

''The NCAA is so well known that automatically people think it has to be good ,'' says Mimi Murray, associate professor of physical education at Springfield College and a spokesperson for the AIAW. ''In many ways it is, but the AIAW is also important. It is good for women's athletics, and that is what we want to spread.''

The smaller organization also offers a wider spectrum of competition at this time. In the 1981-82 academic year, for instance, the AIAW fielded 41 championships at various levels in 19 sports; the NCAA only 29 women's championships in 12 sports.

Even as the NCAA enlarges its schedule for women, Murray claims the AIAW will offer more. ''There are more playing opportunities for women in the AIAW than there most likely ever will be in the NCAA,'' she says.

The arguments for the continuing existence of the AIAW may not be enough. As they temporarily shut down operations, leading almost certainly to even greater AIAW membership decline, NCAA members will inevitably increase.

The lawsuit brought by the AIAW may have a bearing on the future, but as NCAA president James Frank says, ''Ultimately, of course, the colleges and universities themselves will determine the governance structure for intercollegiate athletics, as they have in the past.''

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