A Possible Future For American Female Collegiate Athletic Opportunities

Courtesy of Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Champion Women and the California Women’s Law Center.

In contemporary times, women continue to be among the powerbrokers in the world of open water swimming. From setting records and making headlines to getting sponsors and organizing events, women continue to be on a roll in marathon swimming, channel swimming, ice swimming, winter swimming, disabled swimming, and adventure swimming around the world.

In the United States, women like Sarah Thomas, Liz Fry, Lynne Cox, Penny Dean, Catherine Kase, Kimberley Chambers, Diana Nyad, Marcia Cleveland, Bonnie Tsui and many others write books, are subject of documentaries, give motivational speeches, appear on television, and travel the world as ambassadors of the sport, just in the same way that Annette Kellerman, Gertrude Ederle, Florence Chadwick, and Greta Anderson reigned as movers and shakers of the sport throughout the 20th century.

But this long history of female success in the open water has not replicated on the same scale among women in collegiate sports in the United States.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, J.D., a four-time Olympic medalist, civil rights attorney, and the founder and CEO of Champion Women, released a report two weeks ago that showed discrimination against women in American collegiate sports remains persistent and widescale. The full report is posted here.

In the Zoom conference posted above, Hogshead-Maker was joined by Amy Poyer, J.D., Senior Staff Attorney of the California Women’s Law Center, and Donna de Varona, 1964 Olympic gold medalist, journalist and Title IX Activist to discuss the situation and the outlook.

Hogshead-Maker explained, “In 1972, Congress passed Title IX which promised equal educational opportunities for women and men in schools that receive any federal funding. Sport equality was set to be achieved by 1978, yet for decades we have known that women lagged behind men by all measurable criteria, including opportunities to play, scholarship dollars, and treatment. What we did not know was the enormous size of the gaps, the alarming trends apart from equality over time, and what this systemic discrimination costs women and our economy.

Champion Women and the California Women’s Law Center performed an in-depth analysis of data available from the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act. Because athletics is sex-segregated, discrimination and gaps are easy to measure. The data showed discrimination throughout intercollegiate sports and that the inequality is growing at an unrestrained rate.

Their key findings include:
* 90% of universities and colleges discriminate against women in sports. Our analysis shows that most intercollegiate athletic departments are not meeting any of the standards Title IX sets for schools to demonstrate equality in sports opportunities.
* Women miss out on US$1 billion in athletics scholarships annually. NCAA schools alone allocate US$3.5 billion to college scholarships, yet female student athletes are routinely denied hundreds of millions of dollars.
* NCAA institutions would need to provide women an additional 148,030 sports opportunities to match the same ratio of opportunities that are offered to men.
* Women cannot move to another competitive tier or geographic region to escape the sex discrimination. Data for the entire NCAA, NAIA, NJCAA, and USCAA paints a clear picture that intentional discrimination against women is not isolated to specific conferences, competitive levels, or geographic regions.

All sports governing bodies are private associations; they have the power to require fairness or remove schools that intentionally discriminate against women. Champion Women and California Women’s Law Center call on the NCAA, their member conferences, along with the NAIA, NJCAA, and USCAA, to hold schools accountable for providing women and men with equal athletic opportunities.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of our findings is that most women athletes who are denied a scholarship or a spot on a team will believe it was because they weren’t good enough, they didn’t work hard enough, they weren’t as talented as their male peers. But in reality, none of this is true. Women are simply up against systematic and intentional sex discrimination in collegiate sport, despite strong legal protections. We all know playing sports has life-long benefits in education attainment, employment, and health. The benefits should be equally available to women.”

Betsy Butler, Executive Director of the California Women’s Law Center and former California State Assemblywoman, says, “Unfortunately, the burden often falls on young female athletes to bring lawsuits against their schools and demand change, when in fact it is the responsibility of school leadership to ensure their students have equal access to athletic opportunities. It is unfair for administrators and athletic departments to pass this obligation onto their 18 to 22-year-old students.”

This situation is similar to a lobbying and legal effort that International Swimming Hall of Fame and International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame dual inductee Sandra Bucha faced in the 1970s which she explained in a recent WOWSA Live interview:

Sharon Beckman, who once clerked for the first female on the U.S. Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor, faced a similar issue in her youth.

Beckman, now a law professor at Boston College, benefitted from Title IX that mandated equal opportunities for both men and women in American schools. The landmark law allowed Beckman to join her high school swim team and continue her swimming career that culminated in crossing the English Channel in 1982 and finished 3rd in the 1983 World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation circuit.

Steven Munatones says, “One of the distinct advantages of becoming an elite athlete in America is to receive a college scholarship as a student-athlete in a NCAA institution of higher learning. An American college scholarship enables dedicated students to receive a free (or heavily discounted) education.

The scholarships also allow students to train and compete with many other competitive athletes under the guidance of experienced coaches in athletic facilities that are among the best in the world. But with all the millions of dollars that support these talented athletes, coaches and enable beautiful facilities, I was surprised to hear from Nancy that college women receive so much less in athletic scholarships than young men. Back in 2015, Nancy estimated that if American universities provided men and women with equal opportunities to participate in sports via funding, then 134,528 more women in America would would have benefitted from a collegiate sports experience.”

That is a huge differential.

At the highest end of competitive open water swimming, the top American women received college scholarships. Those athletes included Becca Mann (USC), Haley Anderson (USC), Erica Sullivan (USC), Eva Fabian (Yale University), Christine Jennings (University of Minnesota), Emily Brunemann (University of Michigan), Ashley Twichell (Duke University), Tristin Baxter (Arizona State University), Lindsay Vrooman (Indiana University), Megan Rankin (University of Florida), and Lindsey Clary (Ohio State University), among others.

While this situation looks unfair and imbalanced from the perspective of young female athletes, there was a convincing case (created by former water polo player Adam Button with two daughters) that may help develop many future opportunities for young women.

Button wrote – and helped implement – a convincing case study of the economics of profitably adding sports at NCAA institutions. The case was implemented at a university in Maryland. Button explained, “The president of the university asked me to take a look at the school’s Athletics Department. Although the undergraduate population there was nowhere near the scale of most well-known college programs that compete in the highest division of NCAA athletics, the university had fielded NCAA Division I teams for two decades.

However, with budget pressures facing the school, the president initiated numerous efforts to assess costs in many different areas of the campus, and the Athletics Department was no exception. The consensus thinking by most administrators and almost all faculty was that Athletics was a big money-loser, and that immediate steps needed to be taken to either move down to NCAA Division III in order to reduce both athletic scholarship expense and the sometimes significant financial support that the NCAA requires of certain Division I teams, or simply drop the Athletics program altogether.

There had been some precedent set for eliminating specific teams, as the former President had disbanded three athletic teams a few years earlier. Upon first glance, this negative attitude toward Athletics appeared warranted. While $8 million was spent annually on the Athletics Department including expenditures for coaches, equipment, apparel, team travel, administration, and athletic scholarships, this amount was only offset by a $1 million in revenues.

It looked pretty bleak.

Taking a closer look at the numbers, I realized that none of the reports had a line item for tuition revenues. Tuition revenue generated by athletes at a school is critical for school administrators and boards of Trustees who are looking at the university’s cash flow, and yet the generally accepted conclusion of a $7 million annual loss did not include a penny of tuition revenues coming in from the student-athletes. Remarkably, many members of the faculty and administration simply assume that because of the expense of Athletics scholarships, athletes on campus made no financial contribution to the university.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The initial analysis was not as simple as merely counting the number of athletes on campus and multiplying by the school’s published annual tuition. On the revenue side, every student on campus is given a unique financial aid package, and so it was needed to be determined what the net tuition income was from the athletes. This often included both athletic scholarships and non-athletic (academic, or need-based) grants, as well as certain unique items like university loans, family discounts, and others. Revenue streams also came in for student housing and meal plans, and as these were both profitable aspects of the University’s financial model.

The cost side provided its own challenges. There was no doubt that having an athlete on campus was more expensive than a non-athlete – there are coaches to pay and uniforms to buy as two examples. In addition, there were the overall costs of running the University from paying the professors to mowing the lawns and heating the buildings. To conduct a valid analysis that got to the heart of the profitability of the individual teams, and of the Athletics Department as a whole, a thorough cost accounting of every line item in the school’s budget was conducted in order to get to a very fine level of resolution regarding the specific costs incurred to house a student, feed a student, and educate a student, as well as to determine any differences between these costs for athletes versus non-athletes.

For example, while the cost of maintaining the grounds throughout the school might initially be viewed as one that should be shared equally among all students, further analysis indicated that over 60% of the time spent by the grounds staff was specifically dedicated to the athletics fields. The soccer, rugby, lacrosse, field hockey, and other fields of play required significantly more attention than lawns [in the center of campus], and so allocation of a higher percentage of this overall cost was allotted to the teams and athletes.

A comprehensive financial analysis of the Athletics programs determined that the school wasn’t losing $7 million a year on Athletics; in reality, it was losing about $1 million a year.

But that is not the end of the story. Because in conducting this study, we also concluded that almost every single team was actually profitable on a stand-alone basis. Almost all of the teams generated more money than they were spending. That is, before being loaded down with the overhead allocation of the Athletics Department, and then being weighed down even further by the overhead allocation of the University as a whole, almost every team was contributing positive cash flow to the university every year.

The key, quite literally, was student bodies. Despite the additional costs of scholarships, coaches, uniforms, equipment, and travel, even a small 12-person team would be profitable. And the larger the team, the more net cash it would contribute. This insight provided the rationale to change the University’s direction. Rather than cutting teams, my proposal was instead to immediately grow the number of NCAA Division I teams at the school from 16 to 25. My projections indicated that implementing this plan over the following four years would grow the net contribution of Athletics at the school from negative $1 million to positive $5 million – a $6 million swing in four years, driven by more than doubling the total number of student athletes.

Given the declining overall student populations, this growth strategy was a compelling and realistic way to keep the beds on campus filled and keep the University’s finances in the black. Furthermore, we structured the cash flows such that if the Board chose to, they could reinvest some or all of those excess funds into building additional athletics facilities – both for additional teams, as well as for a fitness center for the entire student body.

The University’s Board of Trustees accepted the recommendations with very few exceptions. The first two new teams were authorized immediately. Over the next two years, the school added 7 of the 9 teams recommended, and they are now at 23 total teams. In addition, due to the selection and timing of these additions, the school is now in compliance with Title IX requirements – something the university did not have at the start of this project.”

Munatones surmised, “Button’s work may be one of the first critical steps in creating new and additional opportunities for young women in American collegiate athletics. A cycle can be kickstarted by first growing or adding teams – including swim teams – that lead to additional cash which can then lead to new or enhanced opportunities for young women in American colleges.
Most of the athletes are not at the Olympic level or go on to be professionals. But if more spots are made available for young women – across the campus – to be collegiate student-athletes, this would be one great and lasting outcome of Title IX
.”

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