Women’s Equality in Sport: One Step Forward, Two Back?

More than 46 years ago, when Title IX was an obscure law that had little bearing on athletics, I sued Yale University. I sued on behalf of the women coaches and women athletes who were mired in a system of inequities, involving the use of part-time coaches, meager coaches’ salaries, lack of facilities, lack of access to athletic trainers, and limited budgets. After five years of depositions, including a suggested payout to make me go away, Yale settled the suit one week before the trial. Change was in the air, or so I thought.

In 1972, women coached more than 90% of all women’s teams. Today, they coach fewer than half. In 2020, while more women play college sports than ever before, just under 40% of NCAA women’s teams have a female head coach. Currently only 3% of men’s teams are coached by women. Gender bias impacts the hiring of women in all sports and in positions of power within athletic administrations. A report produced by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport states that there has been little change when it comes to college sports. White men overwhelmingly hold key positions in college athletics. Three highlights from the report:

1. Women hold 3.6% of the head coach positions for men’s teams.

2. Women make up only 10.5% of Division 1 Athletic Directors, which is particularly depressing considering that 42.9% of Division 1 athletes are women.

3. For all women’s teams, women hold only 40.8% of all head coaching jobs. Men even dominate assistant coaching positions.

The picture for women’s teams’ coaches is getting gloomier with each passing year. One ironic reason for this decrease in the number of women coaches is that coaching positions for women’s teams became more attractive with the increase in salaries and budgets mandated by Title IX. Men became more interested in the positions as salaries increased, and therefore applied more often and were hired.

In March 2020, the U.S women’s national soccer team sued its employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation, for gender discrimination, the first known lawsuit of its kind in professional sports. All 28 members of the team signed on to the suit demanding pay equality, this for a team that just won its fourth World Cup. In contrast, the U.S. men’s team has never won a World Cup and in 2018 even failed to qualify for the tournament. The lawsuit argued, in part, that “the female players have consistently been paid less money than their male counterparts. This is true even though their performance has been superior to their male counterparts.”

Judge Klausner from the Central District of California dismissed the claim pointing out the differences in the structure of the men’s and women’s contracts. The response from the women? They state that they were never offered the same pay structure as the men…. The women press on in their fight and are committed to a more positive outcome not just for themselves but for the younger women players coming up.

Why are these inequities still an issue? How can we still be fighting this fight?

In October 2020, I received a call from Ryan Bamford, UMASS Athletic Director, informing me that the NCAA is stripping the women’s tennis team of two years of victories and the 2017 Atlantic 10 Championship over the improper payment to two players for a phone jack in their off-campus apartment. This error was made by an athletic department administrator and neither of the players nor I were aware of the overage.

It all began with the discovery in 2017 of some possible irregularities in UMASS athletics. After an internal audit, work with outside counsel, and then a cooperative investigation with the NCAA, where UMASS turned itself in to the enforcement division, it was determined that a total of $8,600 of financial aid had been incorrectly dispensed to 10 members of the men’s basketball team and $500 total to two members of the women’s tennis team. Basically this was an accounting error of $125 each year for two years to the two players (included to cover the cost of their apartment phone jack for two years). Again, a grand total of $250 each for something they never needed and knew nothing about. The enforcement division of the NCAA, understanding that this was a small amount of money dispensed inadvertently offering no competitive advantage, worked with UMASS on a negotiated resolution. They agreed to a two-year probation and a small fine for the University. So far, so good, except that the NCAA Committee on Infractions overruled the resolution and deemed that the infractions made the players ineligible and therefore all matches in which they competed (all for those two years) were played illegally, the wins needing to be vacated as well as the crown jewel of their careers, the A10 Conference Championship.

When the Committee on Infractions held a news conference to explain itself, there was no sympathy. Regardless of knowledge, fault, or intent, the athletes were technically ineligible, which forces the matches they played to become forfeits.

Compare this to the irregularities in top tier men’s programs. In college basketball, Kansas and Arizona are involved in a recruiting payment scheme whereby representatives of Adidas influenced high school players on which schools to attend. Still, the Kansas teams keep on playing. In 2017, the NCAA determined that while the University of North Carolina committed academic fraud, by offering deficient Department of African and African-American Studies “paper courses” to student-athletes and the general public. The NCAA reported that key UNC staff members were uncooperative, but UNC agreed that it permitted the conduct and courses to occur for 18 years because of institutional shortcomings. The NCAA says that it didn’t get enough information from UNC to help prosecute the case. Really? If you are a Power 5 men’s team and withhold information that would aid the Committee you are absolved of wrong doing? But if you are a mid major women’s program who turns itself in, hides nothing, you are punished to the fullest extent?

Is this really where we are today? Are the steps forward that many of us have embraced being outpaced by steps backwards? Of course during the time of Covid and much self reflection it is easy to be angry, frustrated, and saddened by this picture.

As the UMASS appeals case is still pending at the time of this writing, I simply wait, for the lawyers to make their case, and for the NCAA to make its final ruling. In the meantime, I continue to speak out, to the next generation in particular, urging them to understand the history that preceded the opportunities gained for them and encouraging them to continue the fight.


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