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Women's Work - Financing Gender Equity in Collegiate Athletics

Is there a pain-free way to finance gender equity?

It sounds like a riddle — what does everyone claim to support, but no one know how to pay for? — but any athletic director who’s ever grappled with Title IX compliance knows it’s no kids’ game. The answer, of course, is gender equity, and if you know of an innovative method to finance it that doesn’t involve slashing existing athletic programs or blowing a hole in an already taxed athletic department budget, there are a few hundred athletic directors who’d like to speak with you.

Each choice in the gender-equity equation carries financial and emotional drawbacks.Each choice in the gender-equity equation carries financial and emotional drawbacks.At the college level, Title IX has been on ADs’ collective mind since the law first passed 27 years ago. A sense of urgency has suddenly taken hold, though, as Renee Smith’s lawsuit against the NCAA has slowly wended its way through the courts, making it clear that student-athletes and advocacy groups intend to hold schools legally accountable for ensuring that the quantity and quality of athletic opportunities are equal for both sexes. While the threat of expensive lawsuits has grown, not to mention the necessity of institutions to protect themselves, ADs insist that one thing isn’t growing fast enough: the money to pay for equity.

Syracuse University is one school that recently felt the Title IX crunch. Earlier this year, an appeals court dismissed a complaint against Syracuse in part because of the school’s decision to add several new women’s programs in recent years, including soccer, lacrosse and softball. But in order to bolster women’s opportunities, men’s programs and the department’s budget had to take a hit — gymnastics was axed, wrestling has been placed on life support and the department is running a deficit.

“We’re doing this in the only way available, which is to cut expenses,” says Syracuse AD Jake Crouthamel. “And it still hasn’t been enough for us. Believe me, if there were innovative ways for us to be paying for this, we’d all be doing them.”

As those familiar with the intricacies of Title IX will tell you, there are actually three ways in which a school can comply with the law — by ensuring that its athletic opportunities and scholarship spending are proportional to enrollment, by demonstrating a consistent history of expanding and improving women’s athletic programs or by demonstrating that it is meeting the needs and abilities of its female student-athletes. To improve or add to women’s programs and services while keeping budgets balanced, schools have traditionally combined any of the following three options — cut their existing men’s programs, reallocate the resources they already have or find more money to spend. Each choice carries financial and emotional drawbacks.

Last October, officials at Providence College found out just how ugly the first option can be. In order to bring their programs more in line with their female-dominated (57 percent) student enrollment — and to prepare for an NCAA peer review — Providence dropped men’s baseball, tennis and golf. Even though donations from private supporters will allow tennis and golf to phase out over the next three years, the decision drew the ire of athletes, alumni and fans alike.

According to Associate Athletic Director Tammy Light, there was no other way for the college to go. “We looked at a lot of different options, and all of them involved spending more money,” Light says, adding that college President Phillip A. Smith nixed the idea of more of the school’s budget being spent on athletics. (Currently, the department receives10 percent of the college’s total operating budget.) “We felt it was irresponsible to add even more teams and fight for that same piece of the pie, especially when we have some teams that are struggling to compete.”

Like Syracuse, its larger neighbor in the Big East Conference, Providence (a big-time athletic school with a small-time enrollment of only 3,800 students) is trying to increase and diversify its fund-raising to help fuel its gender-equity efforts. But it can be a jungle out there, and in the case of many schools, such efforts haven’t proved to be enough. For example, this spring, intensive efforts to create a permanent $13 million endowment to support non-revenue sports at the University of Miami (Ohio) came up about $10 million short. In April, trustees voted unanimously to kill men’s soccer, tennis and wrestling.

Crouthamel is pinning his hopes not on fund-raising, but on the possibility of amending NCAA bylaws to reduce the number of men’s sports a school would be required to carry in addition to football in order to qualify for Division I-A membership. Football, the most expensive, scholarship-heavy sport a school can offer, is nearly always the one that tilts a school out of compliance with Title IX. “Right now, if you have a football program, you have to carry ‘x’ number of men’s sports to qualify as I-A,” says Crouthamel. “Reducing that ‘x’ figure would certainly go a long way toward reducing our expenses.”

Rewriting NCAA bylaws certainly isn’t the only option. Many schools have adopted a policy of roster management, capping the number of participants on men’s teams in order to free up opportunities for women without adding additional costs. Other schools have found ways to finance gender equity by working with what they already have. The University of Delaware, for instance, has helped its standing by promoting existing women’s club sports such as soccer and crew to varsity status. While such a strategy certainly isn’t cost-free — the university has stepped up its financial commitment to cover these sports — in some cases, it can be less expensive than creating a sports program from scratch. It’s certainly easier from an organizational standpoint.

According to Athletic Director Edgar Johnson, Delaware’s decision to promote soccer (in the late ’80s) and the decision to promote crew (this year) were made independent of gender equity concerns, even though the university, with a female-to-male student ratio of 56 to 44 percent and a female-to-male student-athlete ratio of 44 to 56 percent, is still a ways from achieving compliance with Title IX’s proportionality prong. “When the ladies came forward and asked for varsity status, we looked at it and agreed it was the right thing to do,” Johnson explains. “All along, in the back of our minds, we knew that by doing so we were helping ourselves with Title IX.”

Southwest Missouri State University is another school that’s found a way to finance Title IX initiatives while still remaining solvent. Year in and year out, the women’s basketball team makes money while drawing as many fans as the men’s team does. Although there are certainly differences between a Division I-AA program like Southwest Missouri State and larger I-A programs, Associate Director of Athletics Darlene Bailey believes the issues involved are the same. To Bailey, financing compliance is a question of first establishing an institution-wide commitment to gender equity, and realizing that focusing only on proportionality unnecessarily complicates the issue.

“We’re still not getting it,” Bailey says. “We never get past proportionality, and all the lawsuits we see are related to that. What we need to do is look at the third prong first, to make sure we’re taking care of the athletes we already have. If a school adds three women’s sports without adding additional funding, it’s like throwing three more people into a lifeboat — everybody’s going to drown.”

The university has avoided such a watery fate by using creative, cost-effective methods, getting marketing mileage out of the Fast Break Council, a group of local businesswomen who were recruited to help fund-raise and promote the women’s program.

Schools such as Dartmouth have helped their women’s programs — and their Title IX status — in similar ways, by convincing established booster clubs for men’s programs to begin fundraising to improve women’s programs, too. Janet Justus, the NCAA’s director of education outreach, notes that this strategy can be especially valuable when it comes to Title IX’s third prong. “The student-athletes know whether they have the lousy practice time or the bad fields,” she says. “These things cost dollars to address, certainly, but that’s where booster programs can help, because it’s a tangible issue.”

But Crouthamel says he’s frustrated at having to also find ways to finance what he calls the “cottage industry” that’s been created by the demands of Title IX — additional strength and conditioning coaches, personal development specialists and videographers to service new women’s programs. “We’ve been blindsided on this in the areas of academic support and personal development for student-athletes,” says Crouthamel, who points out that the size of his athletic department staff has tripled during his tenure. “I join my colleagues across the country in frustration. We’re asked to do all this stuff, and while I don’t suggest for a second that the effort isn’t worthy, it’s getting beyond the point of sanity.”

Justus wonders if the real insanity isn’t the tremendous amount of money schools are spending on their athletic programs in order to remain competitive. Stuck in a keeping-up-with-the- Joneses mode, she argues, it’s no wonder colleges say they’re strapped for cash when it comes to paying for gender-equity initiatives. “Maybe what we need to do is figure out how to downsize everybody across the board, so we don’t have this arms race going on,” she suggests. “Title IX has simply brought an existing issue into sharper focus. The bottom line is, we need to be treating the women the same way as the men — how are we going to spend our money?”

For many schools, an answer that addresses competitiveness, gender equity and the bottom line remains a riddle they have yet to solve.

This article originally appeared in the July 1999 issue of Athletic Business.

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