Setback for Female Athletes in the NCAA

July 20, 2005

As an organization, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has taken a fairly aggressive stand in recent months in favor of gender equity and women's sports, condemning the U.S. Education Department for issuing rules that are widely viewed as weakening the enforcement of Title IX, the law that bars sex discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal aid.

But when it comes to the pocketbooks of individual institutions and concerns about competitive balance, it seems, principles have a way of bending a bit.

One hundred sixteen colleges in Division I, nearly a third of the total number, have voted to override a NCAA rule change that would raise the number of scholarships colleges can offer to athletes in various women's sports. Because more than 100 institutions voted to override the legislation, it is suspended unless and until the Division I Board of Directors approves the measure (or portions of it) again at its meeting next month. If the board were to endorse its earlier decision, the NCAA's members would then vote on it at their January convention.

The NCAA said in a news release last week that this is the first time since the NCAA adopted a new governance structure in 1997 that a vote by a representative body had been overridden.

In April, the Division I Board of Directors, which is made up of college presidents, approved legislation that increased the number of scholarships that Division I programs can offer in four women’s sports: gymnastics (from 12 to 14), soccer (12 to 14), track and field (18 to 20) , and volleyball (12 to 13). The changes were scheduled to take effect in August 2006.

But the change was not uniformly popular. Although advocates for women's sports supported it because it would add opportunities for women to participate in Division I sports, offering more scholarships is expensive (at a time when costs are outpacing revenues for many if not most Division I sports programs).

And NCAA rules changes that allow colleges to spend more money are always controversial in Division I because of the great range of sports programs at that competitive level, which include  behemoth programs with $80 million budgets and 30 teams (many of which are in Division I-A) and those with budgets one-fifth the size and fewer than half as many teams, which tend to be in Divisions I-AA and I-AAA (which play big-time basketball but play football a notch down from the biggest programs or not at all)..

Smaller, less-wealthy sports programs often fear that changes that allow more spending will allow the bigger, wealthier programs to snag more of the best athletes for themselves, widening an already sizable gap in competitiveness between the haves and the have-nots. An NCAA spokesman confirmed that all 116 votes to override the increase in sports scholarships were from colleges in Divisions I-AA or I-AAA.

Although Division I-AA and I-AAA institutions outnumber the Division I-A institutions by about two to one, 11 of the 18 members of the Division I Board of Directors represent the biggest-time universities. So the attempted override represents a rare (successful, for now) attempt by the majority to impose its will on the most powerful institutions.

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