For this installment of the Key Elements Group’s March Madness coverage, we turn to women’s sports, asking several questions: How well does the NCAA balance its responsibilities between men’s and women’s collegiate athletics? How does the organization lives up to its responsibilities under Title IX? And – ultimately – does its actual commitment to gender equality line up with its mission statement?

The promotion of women’s sports is a foundational strategy for improving women’s rights across the globe. A recent UN report underscores just how valuable athletics are for breaking gender stereotypes, teaching teamwork and problem solving skills to young girls, and bringing women out of the shadows in repressive countries.

In this particular area, the United States outshines most of the world. According to the Independent, the United States – home to five of the top ten highest paid female athletes – is the single best nation for women’s sports. U.S. female athletes have gained world-renown in sports including golf, tennis, and soccer. The cultural shift that opened up this pathway stems largely from the implementation of Title IX in the 1970s.

Title IX – a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 – stipulates that:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

The provision applies broadly to any institution of higher learning that receives federal funding, mandating that women receive the same opportunities as men. This includes everything from scholarships, access to university services, and the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities, including sports. As more and more high school girls train in the hopes of receiving sports scholarships, the relative success of Title IX emerges; in 1971, only 294,000 female high school students played sports, as opposed to nearly 3.2 million in 2011.

Over the years, Title IX has been subject to controversy, with opponents labeling the provision as overly politically correct, divisive, and divorced from the reality of collegiate athletics. Certain men’s sports – including many soccer, wrestling, and baseball – have indeed struggled in the post-Title IX era. Daily Caller columnist Eric McErlain remarks that Title IX is directly responsible for this, arguing that the gender quota system causes “profound damage” to men’s sports.

But cuts in men’s programs have more to do with Byzantine scholarship requirements set by the NCAA. Writing for ESPNW, Peter Keating discusses how universities scapegoat Title IX instead of addressing the real culprit behind cash-starved sports programs. NCAA Division I bylaws place limits on the number of scholarships that athletes from a particular sport can receive, giving preferential treatment to the two top money-making sports – men’s basketball and football. Keating writes:

Put simply, scholarship limits protect and promote revenue sports. The NCAA allows individual schools to fund specific men’s sports only to the degree that those sports make money nationally. That means LSU — or any other school — can’t give out more than 11.7 [the max set by NCAA bylaws] baseball scholarships, even if it were willing to shift grants from its basketball or football or golf teams.

The scholarship limits for non-profitable sports are arbitrary and are applied to all NCAA member schools. There is no correlation between the number of scholarships offered and the general popularity of a sport. This hurts the image of women’s athletics, as Title IX opponents point to the proliferation of unpopular women’s sports with low participation as proof of the law’s ineffectiveness and its detriment to male athletes. If schools did not have random limits imposed by the NCAA, they could offer scholarships that reflect actual interest levels, and do so equally for men and women.

There are a number of other telling facts that paint a less-than-rosy picture of gender equality in collegiate athletics. The Women’s Sports Foundation – a nonprofit founded by tennis legend Billie Jean King – reveals how women still lag behind men in athletic opportunity: female high school athletes receive 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play sports than male students; women have 63,000 fewer opportunities in athletics at NCAA institutions than men; and women receive $183 million less in NCAA athletic scholarships than their male counterparts.

These numbers speak for themselves. The NCAA is failing to promote academic excellence through athletics equally for men and women. The business of collegiate sports once again supersedes the importance of the NCAA’s nonprofit mission. Women are ideal recipients of athletic scholarships, and not only because of the inherent justness of gender equality; women are exemplary of the mythic student-athlete celebrated by the NCAA, often performing better academically than their male counterparts.

The ever-growing focus on the business of collegiate sports is also adversely affecting women coaches. During the advent of Title IX, about 90 percent of female teams had women coaches. Now, that number is down to 43 percent. Even in women’s collegiate basketball – which has historically been dominated by female coaches – men are making inroads, due in part to more money flowing into the game. This trend is chiefly alarming because women simply do not have the same opportunity to coach men’s sports. While the San Antonio Spurs hiring last year of former WNBA player Becky Hammon as the NBA’s first-ever female assistant coach is a step in the right direction, men still appear to benefit from the prevailing system, enjoying greater consideration for top positions than women.

Taken together, there is still much to be done. The NCAA’s failure to live up to its responsibilities to women athletes is in part due to the broken policies that privilege big schools with big money-making basketball and football teams. But with an unequal distribution of scholarships and the systemic advantage men have in procuring top jobs in college sports, the organization evidently needs a holistic strategy for pursuing greater gender equality.


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