Triumph for NCAA's Little Guys

January 9, 2006

Members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I voted at the group’s annual convention in Indianapolis Saturday to overturn increases in the maximum number of scholarships available for female athletes. Critics characterized the move as a setback for women's sports, but supporters of the reversal said the proposed increases were not the best way to help female athletes and would favor the division's wealthier programs.

In an effort to get a few more women on team rosters, the Division I Board of Directors decided last year to increase the maximum number of scholarships from 12 to 14 in gymnastics and soccer, from 12 to 13 in volleyball and 18 to 20 in cross country/track and field. But last summer, about a third of Division I’s 320 or so members set in motion an effort to rescind the scholarship increases, which they said would favor the division’s bigger and richer programs.

Saturday’s vote overturned all of the increases except for soccer, as a vote to rescind that change fell just short of the five-eighths majority needed.

Outcomes of Votes on Division I Women's Sport Scholarship Increases

Sport Yes No Abstain % voting Yes
Gymnastics 188 111 23 62.88
Volleyball 204 117 0 63.55
Track and field 202 117 0 63.32
Soccer 191 125 1 60.44

Representatives from institutions that favored overturning the increases said during debate on the convention floor that there are better ways to create more opportunities for women, and that adding scholarships to already existing sports would tilt the competitive playing field toward larger institutions.

 “More scholarships obviously could provide more opportunities for women,” said Etienne Thomas, the director of compliance at San Jose State University, “but there are much better ways. With two more scholarships, you might actually just see more funds per player rather than more players.” (NCAA rules allow scholarships in many sports to be divided among multiple players, rather than given in full to individuals.)

Thomas echoed the sentiment of many who voted to overturn the increases when she said that “the answer is to have more women’s teams.” Still, she added that the San Jose State soccer coach will be urged to take advantage of the increased number of additional scholarships. “We’ll encourage him to add bodies, rather than redistributing money,” Thomas said.

Walt Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and chair of the Division I Executive Committee, voted to overturn the increases. He said that a lot of institutions with smaller athletic programs “felt that adding scholarships would put even more of a burden on those of us stretching resources already.”

Representatives from smaller institutions said that increasing scholarships would make it even more difficult for them to stay competitive with institutions that could easily spring for two more free rides. Harrison said there are ways to increase opportunities for women to participate without necessarily offering more scholarships. He added that he understood, though, why an institution with money available would vote to keep the increases. “If you’re a Division I-A institution, this is a way to get gender equity. They were well intentioned.”

Doug Woodard, a professor of higher education and faculty athletic representative for the University of Arizona, said he was “very disappointed” by the vote. “I agree there are other ways to have [gender] parity, but they’re more expensive than what was proposed. The startup cost of a sport is huge,” Woodard said. “Putting in more scholarships is not nearly as expensive. Don’t talk to me about keeping parity until there is parity.” 

The override vote represented the first time the NCAA has allowed its members to vote on a board decision since 1997, when the NCAA adopted its current governance structure. Despite what an institution thinks of the outcome, “the important thing is that this process is in place to address concerns,” said Scott Street, athletics director at the University of Texas-Pan American.

Harrison noted that the fact that the scholarship increase for soccer was not rejected showed that institutions “made decisions based on their circumstances, not just bloc voting.”

Among the explanations proffered for the soccer decision were the high ratio of starters to players on a soccer team, and the feeling among some athletics department staff members that women’s soccer has a high rate of injuries. 

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