Most of the major changes in the status of women's intercollegiate sports came a decade or two ago when, through a combination of tough federal enforcement, court challenges, and enlightened decisions by college leaders, many institutions began to lavish more money and attention in an attempt to give equitable treatment to their women's teams and female athletes.
Over the last five years or so -- even as advocates for lower-profile men's sports have continued to spar with women's sports advocates about numbers and politics -- the status quo has largely held, with the proportion of college athletes who are women staying relatively flat.
Now, though, it appears as if women are beginning to lose ground. A biennial gender equity report  released without fanfare by the National Collegiate Athletic Association on Thursday finds that colleges that play Division I sports directed a smaller proportion of athletics spending to women's teams in 2005-6 than they did in 2003-4. In the 2003-4 academic year, when the NCAA last surveyed its members, Division I sports programs spent an average of $7,285,500 on men's sports and $4,194,800 on women's sports, for a 26 percentage point differential (63 to 37 percent). In 2005-6, the year examined in the survey released Thursday, that split had widened to 32 percentage points, 66 percent to 34 percent ($8,653,600 for men's sports vs. $4,447,900 for women's teams).
In the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A), which contains those colleges and universities that play football at the highest level, the split grew to 70/30, while for those Division I colleges that do not play football, spending was much closer to equal (52 percent for men vs. 48 percent for women), though that, too, represented a backslide from 2003-4, when spending was virtually 50-50.
In Division II, the proportion of expenses devoted to men’s and women’s teams stayed constant (58 percent/42 percent, respectively) compared to 2003-4, while the proportion of dollars for women's teams rose in Division III, to 44 percent from 42 percent.
Other data in the NCAA report suggest that the major sports of football and men's basketball are responsible for most of the diverging fortunes of men's and women's sports programs. The average Division I college spent $7,095,000 of the $8,653,600 it laid out on men's teams on those two sports.
Donna A. Lopiano, former head of the Women's Sports Foundation and now president of Sports Management Resources, a consulting firm, attributed the apparent decline in support for women's sports to a number of factors, including the slowdown in the growth of participation of female athletes in high school and college and a tightening economy. "Add in the continued arms race in men's football and basketball, in particular the academic support building arms race and assistant coach salaries," and it's inevitable that athletics departments will have trouble finding enough money to go around, Lopiano said in an e-mail message.
In recent years, most Division I colleges have tended to deal with financial shortfalls by cutting back on men's sports other than football and men's basketball, which has often led advocates for those sports to blame the push for gender equity -- and Title IX of the Education Amendments, the federal law that requires equitable treatment of female athletes -- for their plight. But "with no more men's sports to squeeze because they've already been cut," Lopiano said, "now women's sports are being squeezed."
To top it off, she said, the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights has largely stopped enforcing Title IX. All in all, she said, the decline in support for women's teams "looks pretty explainable to me."