The Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, more commonly known as Title IX, turns 49 years old today, and if the past year has demonstrated anything it’s that there is still a long way to go until true equality between men and women’s collegiate athletics is reached.
Time and time again, the NCAA has dropped the ball on ensuring equality for women’s athletics. There was the women’s basketball NCAA tournament gym debacle in March, which saw the organization give poor excuses for a lack of equality between men’s and women’s gym and training equipment. There was the issue surrounding the organization of the NCAA softball tournament, which saw Michigan fly to the Seattle regional (where all of its opponents were from the Pacific Northwest), play games until 2 A.M. PST, and then fly home at 4 A.M. PST after losing. Baseball teams didn’t have such problems.
“We deserve better,” Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins, a staunch fighter for gender equality in sports, said.
She’s right, female collegiate athletes deserve better. So why, nearly 50 years after the passage of Title IX (which bans sex-based discrimination in any school or education program that recieves federal funding), do they still have to shout for improved equality?
I think the answer is pretty simple: the NCAA doesn’t want to invest in women.
Despite the fact that women’s athletics are one of the few avenues for growth for the NCAA, the organization still refuses to give women the credit, and investment, they deserve. According to an article published by the Washington Post, in the deal surrounding the broadcast rights of two dozen college sports championships, including baseball, softball, hockey and women’s basketball, the women’s basketball tournament is responsible for more than double the figure the NCAA says the tournament is worth. The NCAA states that the women’s tournament, which isn’t allowed to use the term “March Madness,” brings in 15% of the revenue from the broadcast deal. The Washington Post says it brings in 33%.
The NCAA undervalues women, and unfairly so. The NCAA will point to the disparity between men’s and women’s revenue streams as reasoning to relegate women’s athletics as a tier below men’s athletics. They’re correct, in the sense that the men’s tournament in 2019 netted around $865 million dollars in income while the women’s tournament lost $2.8 million dollars. It’s a fair point, until one looks further and realizes that the budget for the men’s 2019 tournament was almost double the budget of the women’s 2019 tournament. It doesn’t take a doctorate in economics to see that the revenue outcomes were different because the initial investments were starkly different.
Powerful organizations have given women in athletics the short stick for decades. One of the earliest known female soccer clubs in England, the Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club, once attracted an estimated crowd of 53,000 people in 1920 for a match. The Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club played games in England, did a tour of games in France, and even beat an American men’s team.
Unfortunately, the Football Association (FA), the governing body of association football in England, banned women from playing on any FA fields less than a year later. The FA ban effectively killed women’s soccer as an organized sport internationally, since the FA was the most powerful member of the FIFA organization, until the ban was repealed 50 years later in 1971 (a year before Title IX was passed).
Why would the FA ban teams that could draw thousands of people to their games? Because the women’s sport drew attention away from the men’s sport, University of Michigan economist Stefan Szymanski said on the Freakonomics Radio Podcast in 2020. 18,000 more people showed up to watch the women play at Goodison Park than to watch the men play at Everton.
“The owners of the men’s professional teams complained about the game at Everton because they saw it as a threat,” Szymanksi said. “If women’s soccer became popular and could attract those kinds of gates, that would take away from the men’s professional team.”
Does the NCAA parallel the FA? Is fear the driving factor behind the NCAA’s lack of investment in women’s sports? Is the organization afraid of women’s sports eclipsing men’s sports? Is the prospect of forward Naz Hillmon being the face of Michigan basketball instead of guard Eli Brooks so terrifying? If so, the NCAA is run by idiots who cannot understand that both male and female sports can prosper at the same time without damaging the sacred “bottom line” of the “nonprofit” organization.
Collegiate athletics is not a zero-sum game. Men’s athletics don’t necessarily succeed at the expense of women’s athletics, and women’s athletics won’t necessarily succeed at the expense of men’s athletics. As seen in professional men’s and women’s tennis, both genders can prosper in the same athletic realm. Roger Federer and Serena Williams are demonstrative of this fact. Each has their own sponsorships and level of success in their respective games. Their success is not mutually exclusive. The success of both genders in professional tennis surely means the same can apply to collegiate athletics.
It’s time for the NCAA to realize this and give women the same opportunity to thrive and grow that the men have been given from the start.
Until those same opportunities to succeed are afforded to women, there will be no equality in athletics, Title IX in place or not.
Until the smallest instances, such as the Wolverine softball team not needing to take a 6 A.M. commercial flight hours after playing in a regional final, are corrected, the NCAA’s and Universities’ adherence to Title IX will be a facade of true, meaningful equality.