Football and fairness

June 17, 1993

Twenty-one years after the federal government published regulations prohibiting sex discrimination at any educational institution that receives federal money, "gender equity" in athletic programs is still more dream than reality.

Last year, a study by the National Collegiate Athletic Association found that women athletes receive less than 33 percent of university scholarship money and less than 18 percent of recruiting money. At many schools, maybe even most, male teams -- especially football -- still get priority.

Recently, an NCAA task force issued a new set of guidelines to help colleges and universities increase opportunities for women in sports. The report also proposed a definition for "gender equity," which according to the task force will be achieved "when either the men's or women's sports program would be pleased to accept as its own the overall program of the other gender." In short, whatever gender equity is, it's a long way from where most schools are now.

One reason is the football factor -- the fear among school officials that any attempt to slice a shrinking pie more equitably will detract from high-visibility, high-budget male teams in sports like football and basketball. Many people argue that these programs pay for themselves with ticket revenues, television exposure and support from ardent alumni and fans. But these semi-professional teams also skew administrative judgment, leading schools to invest millions of dollars in luxuries like indoor football practice facilities that contribute little to the institution's educational mission. Moreover, embarrassing recruiting scandals, low graduation rates and other misadventures keep coming to light to cast even more doubt on the wisdom of letting colleges and universities serve as minor leagues for the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.

Meanwhile, women athletes have to fight for recognition and even to keep their sports from being eliminated. But there are signs of progress. In response to a threatened lawsuit, Montgomery County public schools now give girls varsity basketball greater visibility by scheduling games in prime-time slots like Friday evenings, previously reserved for boys teams. Even small moves like that can help generate interest and support.

Big-time athletic directors have tended to view gender equity issues as a threat. It may be, however, that by expanding athletic opportunities for women -- and, for that matter, for all students -- schools will discover that athletic excitement does not have to come at such a heavy price.

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