INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — To hear many of those in charge of Division I programs tell it, the state of play for women’s sports could get worse, not better, under proposals that would put more money in the pockets of some college athletes.
Via a new Associated Press survey of athletic directors, and in conversations with ADs and conference commissioners during March Madness, a picture emerged of concern for sports other than the two largest revenue-generators, football and men’s basketball.
The AP asked 357 ADs a series of online questions shortly before various differences between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were put on full display over the past two weeks, drawing complaints from players and coaches, along with mea culpas from the NCAA. Granted anonymity in exchange for candor, 99 athletic directors participated.
The 28 athletic directors of the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten did not respond.
The most striking of the results released Thursday: 94% of respondents said it would be somewhat or much more difficult to comply with Title IX gender equity rules if their school were to compensate athletes in the biggest money-making sports.
“Sharing revenue with student-athletes is not feasible. That only works if universities are then absolved of Title IX requirements,” one AD wrote in response to the survey. “Football revenue supports women’s golf, women’s tennis, women’s softball, women’s volleyball, women’s soccer, women’s track and field on this campus.”
More than 70% said certain sports would lose funding or be cut altogether if their school offered additional non-scholarship payments to students.
“It’s not good enough to just say, ‘Let’s change.’ We have to contemplate the impacts of the change. What’s on the other side of the looking glass?” said Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey, whose league’s ADs did not participate in the survey. “And I am concerned — highly concerned — about the impact on all student-athletes.”
After decades of clinging to an amateur ideal, the NCAA is on the verge of letting players sign individual sponsorship deals to profit off their names, images and likenesses (referred to as “NIL”). With some state laws already on the books that would allow players to cash in, Congress is considering no fewer than four bills that would establish NIL rights and/or call for schools to share revenues with athletes. The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case about whether limits on compensation for athletes violate antitrust laws.
Because of TV deals, football and men’s basketball are the biggest sources of cash for most schools’ sports programs; only 25 schools’ athletic departments pulled in more money than they spent in 2018-19, according to the NCAA, and all were in the Power 5 conferences: SEC, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12.
As part of the survey, one AD referred to the looming shakeup as “a rich-get-richer scheme” for leagues already dominating the landscape.
“What little revenue 95% of institutions realize through revenue sports goes toward supporting other sports,” was another AD comment. “Paying those 5% of students will devastate the other teams that rely on that revenue to survive.”
So a fundamental restructuring of the revenue model could ultimately shift money out of women’s sports.
“Many ADs have flagged concerns about a finite amount of resources,” Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said.
One key matter in college sports is whether women and men get the same opportunities, such as the number of spots available for athletes at a school or the quality of training facilities. That standard was enshrined in federal law in 1972 by Title IX, which broadly prohibits gender discrimination in educational programs that receive federal funding.
The NCAA might not have abandoned the letter of the law, but it certainly lost sight of the underlying principle during its two biggest events: the men’s basketball tournament, held entirely in Indianapolis this year and ending Monday, and the women’s tournament, concluding Sunday after a two-week run in San Antonio.
People noticed the discrepancies: The COVID-19 testing. The arena branding. The weight rooms, noted by Oregon forward Sedona Prince in a social media post that went viral.
“It was very unfortunate and hurting to see that we didn’t have the same effort put in,” Stanford senior guard Kiana Williams said. “We don’t need the exact same weight room as the men, but there just could have been a little bit more effort.”
The NCAA and its president, Mark Emmert, shifted to damage control. The spin campaign continued Wednesday with a news conference suddenly added to Emmert’s schedule and intended as a time to discuss the women’s tournament. That’s in addition to a previously planned session with reporters Thursday to assess the men’s competition.
In an AP interview, Emmert blamed staff communication for the issues and acknowledged “decades of undervaluing women’s sports.” The NCAA announced it would engage a law firm to assess gender equity issues across its title competitions.
“Underneath the surface,” said Rich Ensor, commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, “there are a lot of problems.”
At the very top, meanwhile, there is a pronounced gender gap: An AP count of ADs in Division I found 307 men and 50 women, a split of 86% to 14%.
Compare that to the 2020 breakdown of athletes: 53% men, 47% women.
More than half of conferences — 17 of 32 — have one or no female ADs.
“There’s way too few women leaders in college sports,” Emmert told the AP.
The Big East’s Ackerman, whose league’s 11 athletic directors all are men, said her conference and others are considering something akin to the NFL’s Rooney Rule that governs coaching and front-office searches. The West Coast Conference announced last August what it touted as Division I’s “first conference-wide diversity hiring commitment.”
Donna Woodruff, Loyola Maryland’s AD, said increasing diversity “helps to avoid the mistakes of the past.”
“It doesn’t guarantee that you do,” she said, “but it certainly should help.”
Pells reported from Indianapolis; Fendrich reported from Washington. AP Sports Writers Doug Feinberg, John Marshall, Eric Olson, Ralph D. Russo and Teresa M. Walker contributed.
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