Gender equity in American college athletics received a major impetus with the passage of Title IX legislation in 1972, but only in recent years have court cases put some real teeth in the law.
Some schools found dragging their feet or ducking in and out of loopholes now are having to explain their actions to a judge.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has held two seminars this spring to help members comply with Title IX. Four speakers from a recent Boston-based seminar agreed to sit down with the Monitor to discuss progress on the gender-equity front. Participating were three directors of athletics: Judy Sweet (University of California, San Diego), a former president of the NCAA; Bob Frederick (University of Kansas), and Judy Ray, (University of New Hampshire); and Allan Ryan Jr., a Harvard University attorney who includes athletics among his specialties.
Ryan says schools that don't have their athletic and legal people working hand in hand on gender issues are in "big trouble," He led off the round table, excerpted here:
Allan Ryan: One of the major reasons that there's been a change in attitude is that courts have recognized the right of athletes themselves to bring suit in federal court. It's not simply waiting for the Department of Education to knock on your door. Now any university is vulnerable to a lawsuit by its own student athletes and this brings the issue much closer to home because when the athletic director is named in the lawsuit or the president of the university is named in the lawsuit, you will have their attention. The court decisions so far have been running very noticeably in favor of the plaintiffs.
Bob Frederick: This has affected high schools as well. We have children who are coming up out of the high schools who have had these increased opportunities coming into the colleges now, plus a set of parents with them who are also aware of this. It's kind of sad in a way that the universities are the last ones in this chain. Really, we should have been in a leadership position to solve some of these problems.
Why such reluctance on the part of supposedly progressive thinkers to get with it?
Frederick: In my case, I think the reluctance was primarily financial because we [University of Kansas administrators] were dealing with limited resources, and it was an easy excuse to use, not to deal with the issues.
Do parents encourage student lawsuits?
Judy Sweet: It could be.
Do athletic administrators have firsthand experience with disgruntled parents?
Ray: Very definitely. At the University of New Hampshire there is greater funding presently for men's basketball than women's basketball and parents are in my office wanting to know why.
How do you respond?
Ray: My response is to say, "This is our plan. We have a plan that extends through '98 that there will be equitable treatment." But it's equitable treatment for the overall program [not sport to sport].
Each institution may have certain sports that it feels deserve more attention. Is this part of the complication?
Ryan: I think that's right. The law is clear that what has to be equal is the women's program and the men's program, not necessarily the women's ice hockey team and the men's ice hockey team.
Frederick: One of the issues here that no one has mentioned yet is football, particularly for the I-A schools. There are probably 15 to 20 schools in the country that generate $15 million to $25 million a year in football, so there has been some real opposition on their part to giving up something. That's been a major problem. At Kansas we don't generate those kinds of dollars in football, but we have made a significant investment in football over the years. But we're trying to achieve our plan by the year 2000 without making significant changes in the football program. We've had great cooperation from our football coach and our men's basketball coach in understanding what some of the issues are that we have to deal with.
If football didn't exist, would a lot of the problems disappear overnight?
Ryan: I suppose in the short term it might because football is such a large program. If you take 100 men out of the athletic program that would make a difference at some colleges and universities..... If you have a football team, it means that you cannot neglect women's athletics just because you have a team that requires a lot of resources.
Are there schools that are setting the pace in moving toward gender equity?
Ryan: Yes, they're called defendants. Just kidding.
Frederick: I'm not sure about institutions, but what is happening is that conferences are seeing three or four member schools add a women's sport. All of a sudden, there are discussions at the conference level to make soccer, let's say, a conference championship level sport. Then all the other conference schools join in. That's been really helpful.
Sweet: I think there are some patterns, one being that institutions understand that they had better not drop women's sports or they're going to be very vulnerable. The second pattern is identifying sports for women that have high participation rates and adding those sports, soccer being one, crew being another.
Are people being dragged into gender equity or are they going willingly?
Ray: From my perspective, I'd say the letter of the law is the driver.
Sweet: I would agree, although I do think there's a heightened sensitivity to doing the right things for the right reasons, not simply because of the threat of litigation.
Why has the attitude changed?
Sweet: I think there's a greater cultural acceptance of applauding female athletes, who are more skilled than ever. Ten years ago male athletes really didn't have time to attend female sporting events and now they're the first ones there to cheer on their counterparts.
I think that's a really healthy cultural change that has taken place. And there are fathers proud of their daughters' participation, too.
Is the increased participation of women acting as a leavening agent in college athletics?
Sweet: I don't know that we necessarily bring a new philosophy or a new approach, but I do think that females have had some different experiences that they bring to the athletic arena, which may result in the reshaping of philosophies.
Frederick: I agree. I just hope that we don't end up being in a situation where some of the excesses that we've had in men's athletics end up in women's athletics as well.