Title IX protections force colleges to walk a fine line as they weigh cuts to women's sports

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MANHEIM, PA - NOVEMBER 24: Middlebury takes the field during the Division III Women's Field Hockey Championship held at Spooky Nook Sports on November 24, 2019 in Manheim, Pennsylvania. Middlebury defeated Franklin & Marshall 1-0 to win the championship. (Photo by Craig Chase/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Title IX offers equity protections to non-revenue sports such as women's field hockey. Pictured: The Middlebury team during the Division III Women's Field Hockey Championship in 2019. (Photo by Craig Chase/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

No overnight stays, no contact, and for some college teams, no returning for next season.

The coronavirus pandemic will inevitably change the landscape of college sports. Already, schools are cutting programs, petitioning for changing Division I qualifications, and travel being re-evaluated.

Women’s sports and Title IX are at the intersection between some schools’ athletic profits and participation opportunity. In 1972, Title IX was created for an equal opportunity for men and women to participate in on-campus athletics.

In nearly every example, women have to fight their way into the athletics picture, whether that’s college, pro, or youth. The NCAA is one of the only regulated foundations in the sports world that enforces rules to give women equal access and opportunity.

Even with some Title IX protections, that doesn’t leave women’s sports always in the same equal place as their male counterparts.

Revenue vs. equity

Some schools struggle to balance participation opportunities for those genders while maintaining profitable football, basketball, and other men’s sports programs that traditionally bring in revenue.

The inequity of women in sports transcends rules and bylaws. Title IX is in place because of an unwillingness to organically allow women a space in college athletics in the first place, but even with forced participation opportunity, it’s still an uphill battle for women’s sports to find the same footing.

“All of our sports are expected to do a certain amount of fundraising,” said Colgate athletic director Nikki Moore. “It affects men’s and women’s sports, but women’s sports don’t have the same depth of bench of alumni because they just haven’t been around as long. When that part of the budget needs to be supported by alumni, it makes it tougher to close the budget gaps for some women’s teams.”

Most women’s sports — much like men’s Olympic sports — don’t produce revenue, so it’s easy to look at preserving the sports that do.

That’s not necessarily how the NCAA intended it to operate.

“The biggest concern is schools understanding, sports are an educational experience,” said Sarah Axelson, the senior director of Advocacy at the Women's Sports Foundation. “The revenue and ticket sales and gate play into a school’s decision, but ultimately it’s an educational opportunity. Title IX hopefully protects sports from being cut just because.”

Colgate University infielder Nicole Rounsavill during an NCAA softball game on Friday, Feb 21, 2020, in Madeira Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
Colgate University infielder Nicole Rounsavill during an NCAA softball game on Friday, Feb 21, 2020, in Madeira Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)

Title IX compliance requires women’s programs

For schools that have scholarship-heavy men’s sports like football, which at the Division I FBS level provides 85 scholarships, there needs to be a heavy presence of women’s sports in order to stay Title IX compliant and still offer other men’s sports programs, especially other high-scholarship rates like basketball or hockey.

That’s where sports where no male alternative like field hockey and bowling have a major presence across the country.

Those sports have a budget, too, though, with scholarship and travel and facilities and equipment. It’s tougher to cut women’s sports because most schools need to maintain equity and are just a few scholarships away from falling below criteria.

“Title IX has driven a lot of our decisions to ensure we are staying compliant,” said Delaware athletic director Chrissi Rawak. “All choices we’re making, even in this moment, we consider as a part of our decision-making process. I would be hopeful (other schools) are taking that into consideration as well. With Power 5 schools I imagine it would be a bit different. It’s where I’m grateful working for an FCS school where football is very important to us, but it’s much easier for us to manage Title IX.”

That’s when men’s sports cuts can happen which could rid opportunities for women’s sports as well. At Bowling Green, just the baseball team was cut to stay compliant. At Akron, they lost women’s tennis along with men’s golf and cross country, all non-revenue sports.

Revenue sports budgets are going to be the last thing to go down when cuts can be made to preserve their status. At some Power 5 colleges, one football game of revenue can equal an entire basketball season.

It becomes a balance of making revenue that at times can fund an entire athletic department while also keeping in mind the intention of athletics being an educational experience for student athletes, regardless of the monetary value of the sport.

Title IX scapegoated?

When men’s sports get cut and women’s sports survive, though, it can be easy for Title IX antagonists to blame women’s athletics.

“Title IX never requires cutting sports,” said Axelson. “Once a school offers sports, it requires you should do so with equity. When a school decides to cut sports, it’s not Title IX’s fault. Oftentimes Title IX can be scapegoated why a school is dropping certain sports over others when in reality, it’s budgetary issues and organizational priorities. That being said, Title IX has been in place for over 50 years and it still happens where women’s sports and non-revenue sports are considered first on the list to be cut if schools have to make those cuts.”

Perception or not, Title IX can at times be the razor thin line between women’s sports being an option or not, and college is only true realm where there’s any protection to women’s athletics.

“I think it’s a safety net,” said Big East commissioner Val Ackerman. “There is no Title IX in pro sports, they have to rely on other things. In college, it’s a big factor.”

While athletic departments shuffle budgets to keep as many programs alive as they can, the distribution of resources needs to remain consistent. The football team can’t get travel preference over field hockey, and budgets can’t be cut in women’s ice hockey and not in men’s wrestling.

Schools are focused on trying to find ways to keep those opportunities equal without falling out of compliance; for some schools already toeing the line, dropping a men’s sport now can ironically enough force them back into compliance.

That’s not to say men’s sports need to be cut in order to provide women opportunity; rather, instead of working to ensure equal opportunity for women, dropping a men’s sport instead is an easy way out.

It also fortifies a narrative that women’s athletics hold men’s revenue sports, and thus the athletic departments, back.

“I think it becomes, it’s a part of the narrative that is a reality,” said Rawak.

Women’s sports may be easier to bring back

When sports do return, some women’s sports might be ahead of the curve if contact is taken into consideration.

Many women’s college sports fall in the non-contact realm, and if that’s criteria that is prioritized for a safe return, the phasing back into college athletics could begin with a heavy dose of women’s athletics.

“The leading choice by health and safety and risk mitigation, non-contact sports have an easier path,” said Rawak. “Women or men, they do. How much contact against non-contact, I think there’s a simpler path there.”

Women’s sports aren’t exclusively non-contact, but some women’s sports provide more opportunity than men’s sports to distance or at the least, not share equipment, such as women’s-only sports like bowling or field hockey.

“We do hear contact sports, especially ball sports, may be more problematic,” said Ackerman. “Sports like football or basketball, where you’re sharing and touching this object, as opposed to golf, where you have your own ball, it’s outdoors, easier to physically distance. Tennis can be problematic sharing a ball, a contact sport like wrestling, as opposed to hockey with lots of equipment that could be a barrier. These are the questions everyone is trying to fight through.”

Travel in college sports is going to likely look different in the fall or early winter regardless of the sport, and one element to remain compliant is making sure it’s handled the same way across the board.

No overnight stays is on the table in a format Ackerman described as being similar to high school sports, with formats that are more conducive to ground transportation.

Individual athletic directors envision something similar.

“If a sport has no overnight stays, we’re saying that across the board,” said Rawak. “You look at other things like nutrition, sports psychology, those are going to stay the same. It’s decision making criteria that needs to stay consistent regardless of what sport you’re looking at.”

Visibility lessens after college

Exposure opportunities gone with a lost season can’t be measured against men’s sports, where there’s seemingly endless opportunities to pursue some level beyond college, whether that’s low-level minor league sports or independent leagues.

For women, once they leave the NCAA and don’t have Title IX protections anymore, exposure can become their most valuable asset. A lost Olympic season and pro women’s sports season can have ripple-down effects for college athletes, and there’s nothing the schools can do about that.

“Losing the Olympics, WNBA, the NWSL, those were three massive visibility opportunities,” said Ackerman. “The two biggest women’s team sports in the world, then the Olympics, all three are taken away. For college athletes, a number of them were slated to be on the US Olympic team and other countries, and that brings visibility to their colleges. Swimming, track and field, gymnastics, those are Olympic training grounds. When they go on to the Olympics, it amplifies their college opportunities.”

No one knows what college sports are going to look like when they return, whether that’s in the fall or beyond.

One thing is for certain, and that’s there won’t be any leeway if schools try to skim past staying Title IX compliant.

“A lot of schools are starting to get the message about Title IX, that we have to be serious about this,” said Moore “For schools already in the habit of providing similar experiences for men and women, I don’t think anything will be all that different.”

Women’s sports is in a unique spot between the college sports balance of providing opportunities for women and maintaining budgets, with some unique protections, but in other ways distinct disadvantages.

Ackerman and other experts are still figuring out the right path forward.

“It’s going to be an asterisk year.”

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