Not when colleges are cutting back. Not when students are considering gap years that would eat into the student fees that help most athletics departments balance the budget. Not when mighty Stanford comes to the grim realization that supporting 36 varsity sports just isn’t feasible.
But for Title IX advocates, the best defense is a strong offense.
That tactic might scare people fretting about whether men’s soccer programs will survive Title IX scrutiny in addition to Covid-19 and the bursting of the college sports financial bubble. The idea, though, is to make sure athletics departments don’t forget their overdue gender-equity bills while making their future plans.
So the advocates aren’t going after men’s soccer or wrestling or any other sport. Trim the fat from football and elsewhere, keep existing sports and add more for women.
Cut costs, not sports. And level the playing field.
To that end, ChampionWomen, the group started by Olympic gold medalist and longtime women’s sports advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar, recently unveiled a comprehensive database that lets viewers drill down and see how their alma maters stand in terms of Title IX compliance.
The answer: not well.
Most of the exceptions are those that have a gender balance heavily skewed one way or the other. Texas Woman’s College and Ursuline College have a few men enrolled but no men’s sports. Hampden-Sydney needn’t worry about creating a women’s sports programs for its two (2!) undergraduate women.
So congratulations, New Jersey Institute of Technology (76.29% male). You’re the only school that played in the 2019 Division I men’s soccer tournament that earned a passing grade. The only other schools in Division I that passed are The Citadel (89.75% male) and Virginia Military Institute (87.06%).
Strict gender representation has always been an odd fit with Title IX, which was intended to be an educational equity act. You’d think the pressure to add women’s sports should be on NJIT, which needs to find a way to bring women to campus, rather than Mercer, which would have a better chance of meeting Title IX’s athletics requirements if its student body wasn’t more than 60% female. Anyone up for skiing in Macon, Georgia?
Meeting such gender representation will be more important going forward than it has been in the past. Satisfying Title IX has always been based on a three-prong test in which colleges that couldn’t meet the first prong -- equal gender representation -- could still pass one of two less quantifiable prongs.
The second prong, progress toward gender equity (“a history and continuing practice of expanding participation opportunities”), won’t fly any more. The Title IX data site makes that point with a prominent note at the bottom: “48 years since Title IX passed -- it’s been long enough.” That point was reinforced at the webinar introducing the website, in which panelists questioned whether schools that haven’t reached gender equity after all this time are really “expanding participation opportunities.”
The third prong is more complicated. That prong in its entirety: “The institution is fully and effectively accommodating the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex.”
A bit nebulous, isn’t it? Most colleges, even in NCAA Division III, look for “interest and ability” in the admissions process, not when students have already arrived on campus. Most student-athletes, even in Division III, take sports opportunities into account when picking a college. If colleges are looking for women who can and want to play lacrosse or field hockey at a Division I level, they probably won’t find many who aren’t already at schools with lacrosse and field hockey. If they’re simply asking in the abstract whether people would like to be on a sports team, many more people would say yes.
Perhaps one way to assess interest is to look at participation numbers in high school and youth sports. That wouldn’t address gender equity directly, but perhaps it would give a better sense of what sports both girls and boys want to play.
Which brings us to football.
Football has slightly more than 1 million high school participants, according to the NCAA’s 2018-19 numbers. Boys’ soccer has 459,000, not including the 13% of NCAA players who didn’t play for their high school teams or the countless people who didn’t make their teams.
So why does a high school football player have more than twice as much of a chance of playing in Division I than a high school soccer player has? Why do football players have 30,423 full-scholarship equivalents, more than triple the 8,564 available in men’s soccer, according to ScholarshipStats.com?
Women’s sports as a whole also aren’t taking interest into account. Nearly half of NCAA women’s rowers didn’t compete for high school or club teams. The equivalent number for women’s soccer is 1%. The NCAA says 1,395 women competed in equestrian, the college version of which bears little resemblance to Olympic competition but is a pretty good option for the 1,318 participants reported in U.S. high schools.
It’s not just the scholarships or the participation numbers, of course. It’s the expense.
The wrestling community, among others, has taken notice. A few years ago, advocates blamed Title IX for the long list of defunct wrestling programs. That attitude declined when Ohio University professor David Ridpath -- a wrestler and coach in his own right -- stunned the wrestling community with a presentation called “Why Wrestling Coaches are Wrong” at a celebration of Title IX in 2007.
The problem isn’t Title IX, Ridpath says. It’s out-of-control spending on men’s sports.
“Dropping sports is a choice,” Ridpath said on the Short Time Wrestling Podcast. “It is not a mandate. No wrestling team has ever had to be dropped. It is a convenient excuse so we can go ahead and add on a director of high school relations to a football program or hire a 10th football coach or have our football team stay in a hotel the night of a home game.”
Wrestling advocates are starting to see that women’s sports advocates like Donna Lopiano, who succeeded Ridpath as head of a reform coalition called The Drake Group, are trying to save sports, not cut wrestling. Schools can cut their budgets without cutting entire sports.
“This is the perfect time to address excess and fat,” Ridpath said.
The fattest part of an athletics department is, again, football. Median spending for football teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (once called Division I-A) has gone up from $7 million in 2005 to $18.9 milion in 2018. The median in the Football Championship Subdivision (the other Division I schools with football) rose from $1.77 million in 2005 to $3.85 million in 2018.
For comparison’s sake, consider soccer spending. In the 48 schools that made the 2019 Division I men’s soccer tournament, the median spending on those teams in 2018 was $1.15 million. The median on the women’s teams was $1.3 million.
But doesn’t football revenue pay for everything?
At the “Power Five” conferences, in which schools often report an eight-figure net gain from the gridiron, sure. Elsewhere, not really.
Little wonder so few schools -- 29, by the NCAA’s count -- are breaking even in sports. Those numbers meet with some skepticism, but if everyone’s finances were in good shape, schools wouldn’t be relying on subsidies.
Again excluding the Power Five, those subsidies aren’t small. Institutional support and student fees carry much of the burden -- and those are likely to be cut as students sit out during Covid-19 or press their schools to lower those fees. These fees may run into the four figures per student, according to an NBC database that lets readers search for their schools. Worse, the Drake Group found these numbers are often higher than advertised.
The argument that football and other sports fill seats in potentially underenrolled colleges and provide opportunities for people who otherwise might not attend college don’t hold water. The big football schools spen/d hundreds of thousands of dollars per student-athlete each year, money that could easily go toward more need-based aid or even a scholarship program for disadvantaged communities. An oft-cited study from 2010 found FBS schools were spending six times as much on each student-athlete (median: $92,000) than they were on non-athletes. Other Division I schools spend three times as much on athletes.
In other words: Students who don’t play sports are a lot better for a college’s bottom line than students who do.
The solutions are out there. Football can still fill its financial and cultural roles on campus without 85 full scholarships, 11 coaches, three full-time recruiters, four strength coaches who don’t work with other sports, three academic support employees and five “quality control specialists.” (That’s the staff at Louisville, which had a nice run with Lamar Jackson at quarterback but will never be confused with Alabama.)
And the Title IX burden, in terms of numbers of athletes, isn’t as great as it appears. In my analysis (all available online) of 43 Division I colleges, at least half could meet their obligations by adding women’s field hockey, lacrosse and/or rowing.
At some point, colleges might want to consider reviving junior varsity programs. Why scour the campus for women who might be able to row when dozens of women would happily jump onto a JV soccer team?
So far, soccer has been spared the brunt of the cuts. Excluding colleges that are closing, three junior colleges and one NCAA Division II school are cutting their men’s and women’s programs, while Division II St. Edward’s, Division I Cincinnati and Division I Appalachian State are getting rid of their men’s programs.
That count is sure to rise over the next year. But it doesn’t have to. Colleges can be held accountable for their spending -- and their cuts.