California State University at Fresno has developed a reputation as something of a Title IX renegade. A $19.1 million jury verdict last week in favor of a fired women’s basketball coach who alleged sex discrimination and retaliation for her efforts to achieve equitable resources for players under Title IX was the latest in a string of three similar and successful multi-million dollar lawsuits citing the landmark 1972 federal law barring sex discrimination in institutions that receive federal funds.
So it’s not surprising that when asked about perceptions of the state of women in Fresno State athletics, Thomas Boeh, the athletic director since 2005, responded with frustration. Fresno has a questionable past when it comes to allegations of overt discrimination (the celebration of an "Ugly Women's Athletes Day" in an athletics department office several years ago the most notorious example), and Title IX compliance (a government review in the 1990s found the institution out of compliance in 11 areas).
But on nearly every barometer of gender equity today, “Fresno State generally falls somewhere in the middle or upper half of the country among Division I-A institutions,” Boeh said. “We’re not perfect yet, but we also somehow have become considered the worst-case scenario with Title IX and that’s just not accurate.”
Boeh’s got a point. That’s not to say that resource disparities within the Fresno State athletics program don’t exist -- but they largely mirror disparities nationally that, to some degree, are outside the reach of Title IX. Accusations of inequities at Fresno State raised in the three lawsuits point to larger issues about spending disparities in athletics, issues that are often overshadowed in discussions of Title IX. While the law regulates participation numbers (which are supposed to be roughly proportional to student enrollment), and scholarship distribution (which should be roughly proportional to participation numbers), it does not require that overall expenditures be proportional.
As a search comparing Fresno's athletic expenditures to that of 123 Division I-A institutions in a U.S. Department of Education database shows, on average, the I-A universities spend a little less than 30 percent of their athletics budget on women's sports -- a proportion slightly lower than Fresno's. (The disparity in coaching salaries at Fresno, however, is greater than for Division I-A as a whole: In 2005, the difference in average salary between men's and women's teams' head coaches at Fresno was $224,582, compared to $180,892 for the Division I-A comparison group).
From 2003 to 2007, total per-athlete expenditures for female athletes at Fresno State fell from $15,598 to $15,361, while they rose per male athlete from $42,713 to $45,397, according to data reported to the Education Department under the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act. And an analysis of internal budget numbers compiled by Diane Milutinovich -- a former Fresno State associate athletics director who settled her discrimination case with the university for $3.5 million this fall -- is starker. The analysis, covering a slightly different time frame and involving different numbers from those reported to the Education Department as expenditures, shows sports budgets rising by $17,279 per male athlete from 2002-3 to 2005-6 (as male participation declined by nearly 100 athletes), compared to an increase of about $8 per female athlete (as female participation rose slightly).
At Fresno in 2006-7, expenditures for men’s teams totaled about $10.03 million, compared to $4.96 million -- or about a third of the budget -- spent on women's sports (which in total involve 59 percent of Fresno's athletes), according to the department data. Football and basketball receive the overwhelming brunt of those expenditures: Take out those sports and the balance shifts, to $1.76 million for men and $3.56 million for women. And on the flip side, football at Fresno produces the most revenue, which, at $7.9 million, more than offsets the $5.9 million cost. All women's teams combined brought in $279,831.
“Do I think the number should be 59 percent, no, but I do think it should be above 30 percent, yes,” Milutinovich said of expenditures on women's sports at Fresno. “I’m not unreasonable; I understand that football costs more. But then don’t use the budget as an excuse" for failing to provide appropriate resources to other sports, she said.
“Like the equestrian program, why do they have to buy their own helmets when those are just as expensive as the football helmets?” she asked.
The idea that "there's an industry standard for discrimination," she said, "is wholly unpopular."
Qualitative and Quantitative
Title IX's participation standard requires that a college comply under one of three standards: that the ratio of male to female athletes corresponds to the ratio of male to female undergraduates (known as proportionality); that it demonstrates a commitment to expanding athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex, or that it shows it is meeting current demand. At Fresno State, where the university is attempting to comply under the proportionality prong, athletics participation is nearly identical to overall institutional enrollment. And leaders expect to announce new women’s sports within the next month in order to bring the number of scholarships for women’s sports to representative levels (Fresno State is currently at the National Collegiate Athletic Association maximum for scholarships in all its women’s sports programs).
But scholarship distribution aside, which at Fresno in 2006-7 was split 55/45 for men’s and women’s sports, respectively, Title IX does not require equal or proportional expenditures for men’s and women’s sports. It instead requires that the athlete experience -- in terms of access to facilities and equipment, mode of travel, etc. -- does not differ qualitatively by gender. So that means if the football team flies to a game 500 miles away, so should the field hockey team. If the baseball stadium has lights and an electronic scoreboard, softball players should have the same and shouldn’t be relegated to a dirt field.
Nationally, experts say that the proportion of athletics budgets allocated to female athletes stays fairly stable as budgets grow. Citing data from a forthcoming study, Marj Snyder, co-CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said that while, on average, Division I operating budgets have increased from $10.2 million in 1995-6 to $18.4 million in 2004-5, the proportion allocated for women’s sports increased in that time from 31.2 to 34.2 percent. The proportion devoted to football fell by 0.1 percentage point, from 33.8 to 33.7. And for men’s basketball, the proportion climbed by 0.1 percent, from 15 to 15.1.
Advocates like Snyder say they don’t expect proportional expenditures for men's and women's sports, given the cost of football. But Snyder did say that while she doesn’t know the magic number, the current average spending level for Division I women's sports, at around a third of total sports costs, is generally considered too low to foster the same sorts of qualitative conditions for male and female athletes. “There is no equalizing thing in women’s sports where women’s athletes are spending the night in a hotel for a home game, which is what football teams do,” said Snyder. “It hasn’t been difficult to point out where the experiential differences are, and those experiential differences translate into money at some point.”
One reason the disparities in expenditures may typically get such little attention, Snyder said, is the difficulty colleges have had in reaching the basic proportionality threshold required by the law (assuming they attempt to satisfy Title IX under the proportionality prong, which critics argue is the only sure-fire way to satisfy the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights). “The reason why people haven’t really gotten into the nitty-gritty on the money thing is that we’re still dealing with the proportionality issue,” said Snyder.
But Jessica Gavora, vice president for policy at the College Sports Council, an organization that advocates on behalf of men's sports teams, said she feared that scrutinizing expenditures would only lead to further backlash against Title IX, which she supports. "It is a way to rationalize some of the other activities, to rationalize the strict application of proportionality, to say, 'Oh, there isn’t equity today, look at this spending, it's all unequal therefore we have to bring in the gender equity police,' " she said. With no female sport equivalent to football, "The expenditure does not reflect the equality of the experience or any measure of equity, and I think more importantly it is beyond the scope of Title IX."
Plus, added Eric Pearson, chairman of the College Sports Council, "You also have to take into account revenues, and sources of revenues. You have additional sources of revenue and benefits that come from a high-profile football team or basketball team that the school benefits from" like licensing fees and free media exposure, he said.
“I don’t think that college women’s sports should be looked down upon because they don’t bring in revenues. They’re not professional teams. Their purpose is not to bring in revenue. But it should be part of the discussion when you talk about, 'Are they being discriminated against?' " Pearson said.
Back at Fresno, Boeh, the athletics director, said he couldn’t comment on earlier budget and Department of Education numbers because they were compiled before his tenure at Fresno began, and he’s uncertain of how they were calculated. (Such reports, as Boeh pointed out, are inexact, with different colleges calculating their answers in different ways.)
But moving forward, he said members of the university's gender equity plan task force, established this summer, are charged with identifying any inequities in the qualitative experiences of athletes across sports, keeping in mind the different requirements and characteristics of each team. “What we want to try to do is focus on the experience of the student athletes, and the quality of their equipment, and their academic services and training and strength and conditioning and their gear and their locker rooms,” said Boeh.
As part of an effort to restrain past overspending, the athletics department has put in place a policy, applying to all sports other than men’s and women’s basketball, that coaches should aim to recruit about three-quarters of their athletes from California. The department also asked teams to set up their schedules so the majority of contests are in California or contiguous states. “We’re trying to create consistency in those basic policies of what every sports program is expected to do,” Boeh said.
Asked about the equity of the student athlete experience at Fresno now, and if there are any particular problem areas, Boeh, like Milutinovich, pointed to the women's equestrian program. The squad size, once at around 100 and now in the 60s, will be reduced to around 40 under the new gender equity plan, while the amount of resources will be slightly enhanced to improve the experience of individual athletes. “A lot of this has to do with how much time an individual has on a horse during the week,” he said.
Asked about the helmet issue raised by Milutinovich, Boeh said that while there are helmets available, many women choose to use their own and the challenge is for athletics staff to determine what they can reasonably provide. “The challenge is to do that when there's not an immediate sport that you can measure against, if you will,” he said. “The use of helmets and gear in baseball, how do you take that culture and apply it to another sport... the use of tack and helmets and gear in the sport of equestrian?"
“As long as you have football on just the men’s side, that trend will probably continue because it just is a very expensive sport,” Boeh said of funding disparities. But he expects that with the pending addition of new women’s sports and reductions in the size of the equestrian team (but not resources), the proportion of Fresno’s athletics budget that goes toward women’s sports will rise.
For her part, Milutinovich said she agrees that the size of expenditure should be tied to the nature of the sport, that a volleyball team might need several uniforms as athletes change during tournaments while another team might need one. But she pointed out that if you accept the premise that football players receive preferential treatment, then just under half of Fresno’s male athletes are the beneficiaries.
Can the same, she asked, be said of half the women?