Gender Equity Elusive in College Sports

With March Madness just around the bend, it’s worth returning to an intractable issue facing collegiate athletics: the disparity in opportunity between men and women.

Still – 44 years after the enactment of Title IX – women receive the short straw when it comes to college sports. Each year, men receive $190 million more in athletic scholarships than women. Overall, there are approximately 63,000 fewer participation slots for women in college-level sports. This great difference is in part influenced by the fact that female high school students possess 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play sports than their male counterparts.

As Kelly Wallace points out at CNN, these discrepancies exist regardless of the great feats accomplished by women athletes. Last year, the Princeton women’s basketball team beat the previous most winning college season ever held by the 1970-71 Penn men’s team, winning 30 games and losing zero during the regular season. Combine this with the continued dominance of US women in international tennis and the cultural cache of the highly successful US women’s soccer team, and the fact that institutions (especially those that are publicly funded) are still doing so little to promote and foster women’s athletics is both head-scratching and evidence of a biased system.

The Women’s Sports Foundation – a nonprofit organization – runs a variety of programs aimed at improving the state of gender equity in sports, ranging from wellness programs to get sedentary youth into physical activity to advocacy campaigns to increase the share of women employed by the sports industry. If you are disconcerted at the ongoing disparity in opportunity between men and women in sports (or interested in giving back during this Women’s History Month), consider contributing to this laudable organization.

You can also make a difference by tuning in – the more public support that women’s athletics attract, the harder it will be for detractors to argue for continuing the glaring inequality that currently exists.

NCAA: The Profitable Nonprofit

As Key Elements Group reported last year, the NCAA enjoys a dubious nonprofit status. Ostensibly, the organization’s mission is to foster thriving student-athletes while maintaining an emphasis on education.

The nonprofit’s mission statement:

Our purpose is to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.

In reality, the organization churns immense profit. From its lucrative media deal to its branding rights, the organization pulls in big money, especially through high-interest sports like football and basketball which require a rigorous degree of student commitment that virtually precludes the possibility of focusing on educational pursuits. Considering that very few NCAA athletes go on to play their craft in the professional arena, commentators have accused the organization of outright exploitation – a fact even recognized by some coaches such as Skip Holtz of Louisiana Tech, who voiced support for stipends for over-burdened student-athletes.  

As the NCAA gears up for another profitable March Madness, here’s a quick look at the numbers that place the organization somewhere south of its laudable, if less-than-honest, mission statement.

  • In 2010, the NCAA signed a 14-year TV contract worth $10.8 billion
  • 4,535%, the average annual increase in March Madness TV rights value since 1986
  • $1.1 billion, TV advertisement revenue from 2015’s tournament
  • $1.5 million, the average price of a 30-second ad during title game in 2015
  • $1.7 million the annual salary of NCAA President Mark Emmert through 2020
  • 16x, the amount NBA rookies receive in comparison to what D1 men’s basketball players receive in tuition, room, and board (if provided in full).

The NCAA and Gender Equality: Less-Than-Perfect

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.

A Look Into the NCAA Nonprofit Mission

(Check back this month for continued Key Elements Group coverage on this issue)

As discussed in the previous installment of this month’s March Madness series, the NCAA’s purported mission is to foster academic achievement through athletics. In the process, the tax-exempt organization generates revenue for universities, which can be used to improve campuses and offer scholarships.

On paper, the organization is a financial powerhouse, towering over the stature and resources of many nonprofit groups. According to the 2013 NCAA 990 tax form, the organization holds just under $800 million in assets. The widespread popularity of the top money-making sports – football and basketball – evidently pays off big, with ticket sales and media rights propping up such a resource-rich organization.

These sizable earnings are contingent on the players themselves, designated by the NCAA as “student-athletes.” While many top tier athletes receive scholarships in compensation for their efforts – reenforcing the NCAA’s narrative that it supports scholarly pursuits through sports – players receive little else, as illuminated by Shabazz Napier’s comments last year that there were “hungry nights” in which he was unable to purchase food.

The NCAA’s “student-athlete” categorization undergirds the legal barrier that prevents players from receiving compensation. This was codified in the 1950s, when Ray Dennison – player for the the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies in Colorado – died after sustaining a head injury on the field. The university fought his widow’s attempt to secure workers’ comp. The case ended up in the Colorado Supreme Court, which agreed with the school’s argument that Dennison was a “student-athlete” and not an employee eligible for benefits, further stating that Fort Lewis A&M did not have to pay because it was “not in the football business.”

Over time, however, universities have increasingly appeared immersed in the sports business. The media rights for the 2013 March Madness tournament went to CBS for $10.8 billion. Ads sold for an average of $150,000 per second. In 40 out of 50 states, the single highest paid public employee is a university coach, the average pay being $2.1 million and reaching as high – in the case of Nick Saban of Alabama – as $7 million. Writing for The Atlantic, Taylor Branch uncovered tax forms that confirmed that the NCAA spent $1 million chartering private jets in 2006. In 2013, NCAA President Mark Emmert made $1.7 million.

While collegiate sports generate immense wealth, any attempt by players to capitalize on their stardom results in suspension and other penalties. Take for example the case of A.J. Green – a wide-reviewer for Georgia during the 2010 season. Green sold his own jersey from the previous season in order to raise money for a spring break trip. The NCAA suspended Green for this minor transaction, all while replica jerseys emblazoned his number still sold in the team’s swag shops (some earnings of which go to the handsomely compensated coaches).

These rules do more than keep cash-strapped players from enjoying spring break to the fullest. Kent Waldrep was a Texas Christian University running back until he was paralyzed below the neck by a gruesome tackle in 1974. The school paid for hospital bills for just under a year and abandoned Waldrep’s scholarship. Bound to a wheelchair, Waldrep brought forth a lawsuit in the 90s through which he hoped to receive workers’ comp for the high medical costs. Under the “student-athlete” defense, the case was ruled in the university’s favor in 2000.

Considering how stringent the NCAA is with regard to athletes’ legal status and how committed it is to preventing financial benefits for players, it would be paramount for the core mission – that of promoting academic achievement – to actualize through real results. The benefits, however, are murky.

Top-tier athletes spend up to 60 hours a week training, leaving very little room for academics. The NCAA’s maintains a 1-year scholarship rule, leaving it up to coaches to choose who to keep after each season. In the event of injury that renders their value as money-making athletes null, players can easily lose scholarships and thus their sole means of acquiring a degree.

NCAA guidelines require schools to use earnings from collegiate sports to tutor athletes. In the 2006-2007 school year, the NCAA distributed $19.8 million out of its Academic Enhancement Fund to Division I schools for the explicit purpose of schooling athletes. Nonetheless, many schools have players who literally cannot read and write, and many universities go to great (and illegal) extents in order to ensure player grade eligibility. This was evidenced by the recent University of North Carolina scandal in which the school employed summer “paper classes” to artificially inflate players’ grades. Indeed, two former athletes are suing the NCAA and the University of North Carolina because they were deprived a quality education because of this deceptive system.

Many individuals have simply become habituated to these practices, with players in Florida providing self-incriminating evidence during an NCAA investigation because they figured that everything was approved on account of the pervasiveness of grade-gauging and cheating.

Considering that fewer than 2 percent of athletes proceed to professional sports leagues following university, this track record is poor and makes the continued privation of student-athletes difficult to justify. While offering salaries for players is not likely the best solution, other proposals have come up. Steve Spurrier of South Carolina, for example, has proposed stipends for players.

The discussion is gaining more and more traction, with even President Obama weighing in. The NCAA is not pursuing its mission. As an op-ed in the Boston Globe states, the organization can’t have it both ways. It either needs to calibrate its practices to better serve its stated purpose, or it needs to rebrand itself.

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