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By Jere Longman
GARY BLAIR, who coached Texas A&M to a national basketball title in 2011, was asked recently about how unionization of college athletes might affect women's sports.
A college spokesman briskly approached Blair, frantically waved his hands, mentioned an admonition from the athletic director and said in a brusque tone, "Do not answer this question."
Yet, there may not be a more urgent issue in sports: What if the preliminary right given to Northwestern scholarship football players to form a union expands to various men's and women's teams across the country?
It is as if a basketball has been tossed in the air for a center jump and no one knows which way it will be tapped. The potential effect on women's sports has fostered cautious optimism, confusion and suspicion that female athletes will continue to be denied a fair slice of the athletic pie.
"If past behavior is indeed a reliable predictor of future outcomes, women's sports will once again be disadvantaged," said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.
Title IX became law in 1972, but its mandate of gender equity has never been fully enforced. It took women another decade just to get their own NCAA basketball tournament.
The women's Final Four begins today in Nashville, and it arrives with much anticipation and concern. While female athletes have covered a great distance in four decades under Title IX, they also seem to have hit the wall when it comes to proportionate treatment.
Statistics compiled by the Women's Sports Foundation and the National Women's Law Center show how gender disparity remains. Women make up 57 percent of undergraduate students, but 43 percent of athletes. At colleges that play big-time sports, women receive roughly a third of the total dollars spent on athletics, a third of recruiting dollars and just more than 40 percent of scholarship dollars.
Women also find it increasingly difficult to be hired to coach female teams. And separate athletic departments for men and women have all but disappeared.
Women compete at high levels, generally exhibit sportsmanship and largely stay out of trouble. And for that, they are mostly ignored by the news media and struggle to gain evenhanded treatment from administrators.
Conversely, an arms race sustains football and men's basketball. And a misperception continues about the associated revenue and profit.
Yes, those two sports generate millions of dollars. But, according to a 2010 NCAA study, more than 40 percent of Division I men's basketball teams and teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision spend more than they earn.
In other words, at many colleges, football and men's basketball do not pay for themselves, much less finance other sports.
Given the current state of college athletics, there seems more potential benefit than risk for women in the types of reform that might ripple from the Northwestern case, said Erin Buzuvis, a law professor at Western New England University and co-founder of the Title IX Blog.
"Division I athletic programs have been bringing in increasingly more money, and it hasn't been the case that opportunities for women have been getting better," Buzuvis said. In her view, the equal treatment requirement of Title IX would compel colleges to provide the same collectively bargained benefits to female athletes as males, from extended health insurance to salaries.
"Nothing that happened" so far in the Northwestern case "changed Title IX in any way," Buzuvis said.
Others are not so certain.
If it holds that athletes are employees, Title IX, which refers to access to education, may not apply, said Ellen J. Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel and an expert on Title IX and college sports reform.
Some experts fear a cynical embrace of Title IX by college administrators, who might argue that reform is impossible because insufficient money would be left to pay for women's sports. A similar argument - criticized as scapegoating - has long been used to contend that compliance with Title IX has forced some colleges to drop men's sports.
"I don't think legally or morally that Title IX should be used as a shield or a defense to continue practices that are not good for student-athletes," said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel and director of equal opportunities in athletics at the National Women's Law Center in Washington.
It is expected to be years before the issue of athletes and unions is settled. For now, there are mushrooming questions. If athletes are employees, will colleges have to hire as many female employees as male employees? What job security would athletes have if they did not live up to the conditions of their hiring?
"I'm actually in favor of paying them, but I'm also in favor of firing them if they're not any good," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who is seeking his ninth NCAA title. "I think that's fair."