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Empowering Women in Sports

Exploding the Myths

It is time to put to rest some of the myths surrounding gender equity in sports.

MYTH: Football and basketball create revenue and are important because they can fund the entire athletic department, generate visibility, and lead to TV money. Therefore, they should have large budgets.

FACT: While it is true that many of the largest schools (Division I-A) have football and basketball teams that bring in profits, the vast majority of football and basketball teams actually run a deficit - sometimes a large one.

In 1989, forty-five percent of football teams at Division I-A schools ran an average deficit of $638,000. What's worse, the percentage of football teams running deficits has been increasing over the years. In 1981, only 24% of Division I-A football teams reported deficits.

Ninety-four percent of Division I-AA football teams ran an average deficit of $535,000 per team. Ninety-seven percent of Division 11 football teams ran an average deficit of $247,000. Out of all Division 1, 11, and III schools that offer football and reported their earnings, only 19% made a profit.

Of basketball teams at Division 1, 11, and III schools that reported their earnings, only 24% made a profit. Seventy-four percent of Division I-AA basketball teams ran an average deficit of $199,000.63

MYTH: Successful football and basketball teams help spur alumni giving to the university. Therefore, football and basketball teams must be well-funded and competitive.

FACT: The schools that receive the most from alumni giving are not the ones with the big name football or basketball teams. Harvard, Cornell, and Yale Universities top the list with the most money given by alumni. In fact, some of the colleges with the most alumni giving per student are women's colleges: Wellesley, Randolph Macon, Mt. Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, and Smith.

In any case, whether or not sports teams bring in money to a school is irrelevant in the eyes of the law. According to Title IX, gender discrimination at federally-funded educational institutions is illegal even if the school's football team is making a profit or bringing in lots of alumni dollars.

MYTH: Football requires a large number of players in order to be able to field two teams for practice, and because of the high rate of injury football players sustain.

FACT: Do football teams really need 105 players, with 85 on full-ride scholarships? After all, a football team is made up of only 11 players. Even with four full teams (two to play against each other in practice, and two extra teams), that is only 44 players.

The huge number of football scholarships is one reason schools have trouble funding women's teams. Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, points out: "If the NCAA were to cut the number of football scholarships from 85 to 65 or 60, it would give every Division I school the ability to comply [with Title IX tomorrow."

Often, schools forced to implement gender equity will cut minor men's sports rather than cut football funding. The men athletes whose sports are cut tend to blame women and gender equity, instead of the bloated football budget.

MYTH: Compliance with Title IX means the doom of men's athletics.

FACT: Non-compliance with Title IX continues to mean the doom of women's athletics. Title IX does not call for discrimination against men's sport; it calls for gender equity. The aim is not to diminish the impact or importance of men's sports, but instead to provide equity for women's sports. Contrary to popular belief, as more women have entered athletics, they have not displaced men. In fact, athletic opportunities for both women and men in high school and college have increased over time.

MYTH: Women are naturally inferior to men in terms of strength and speed. Therefore, women just can't be as good at sports as men.

FACT: All men are not stronger or faster than all women. There is great overlap in the strength and speed of men and women.

Because women on average have greater flexibility, a greater percentage of body fat (useful for ultra-distance races), and smaller size, we tend to be as good as or better than men in some sports: marathon swimming, very long-distance running, gymnastics, synchronized swimming, and horse racing, to name a few. And, in recreational sports like tennis, golf, "Ultimate" Frisbee, softball, volleyball, and countless others, women and men regularly play against and with each other at similar skill levels.

Nevertheless, many men take great comfort in the fact that most women are not big, strong, or fast enough to play football. Of course, most men are not either. "Because women 'could never play football,' [men imply], men are physically, naturally, biologically superior," says Mariah Burton Nelson, author of The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football. "When women demonstrate excellence in sports like running, tennis, and golf, men take great pains to describe that excellence as less important, less worthy, less of an achievement than male excellence.

"These same people would never think of comparing Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammed Ali. One weighed sixty pounds more than the other. Clearly, they deserve to box in different classes. Yet the top female tennis player is often compared to the top male player.... who usually outweighs her by sixty pounds.

MYTH: High schools are exempt from gender-equity and Title IX because they are funded by local money, not federal funds.

FACT: While primary and secondary education is controlled and funded largely by local and state governments, schools also receive billions of dollars of federal money through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and other programs. This federal money funds low income schools, magnet schools, migrant education, drug-free schools, schools in districts with a large military base, and other special programs. If your school district is one of the few that receives no federal funds, you may still be able to enforce gender equity through a state Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) or state "Title IX" law.

States with ERAS: Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. States with "Title IX"-type laws: Alaska, California, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Virtually all colleges and universities receive federal funds in the form of financial aid and research grants.

MYTH: Colleges and universities in violation of Title IX, but who are above national averages for women's participation and funding, should be let off the hook.

FACT: Just because one college or university misses the mark by less than another does not mean they have reached gender equity. Equity does not mean almost equal or part-way. Women are half the population, pay half the tuition and half the taxes, and we deserve equal treatment under Title IX.

MYTH: Colleges can't help it if more than half the athletes are male. Women are just not as interested in athletics as men are.

FACT: It is no accident that colleges have more men athletes than women athletes. More money is spent around the country recruiting men athletes. The institutional average for athletic re- cruitment for Division I schools is $139,000 for men's sports, and only $28,840 for women's sports. If recruitment money were spent equally for women and men, schools would have a much better chance of enrolling an equal number of women and men athletes.

MYTH: Gender equity issues must be put on hold because athletic budgets are too tight at present.

FACT: Women are asking only for 50% of what is available - no more, no less. No matter how small a budget, it can still be divided equally in two.

MYTH: Women do not have as much relevant experience as men do in running large athletic departments. That is why they are not hired as athletics directors.

FACT: Colleges and schools must make an effort to hire competent women athletic directors, to break the cycle. If women are not given the chance to gain experience, how will they ever get it?

MYTH: It's hard for schools and colleges to hire women coaches because women drop out of the workforce to raise a family.

FACT: The argument that women drop out of the work force for family reasons is a common way to excuse sex discrimination. But there is no evidence that women drop out in great numbers. In fact, 54% of mothers with children under 6 are in the workforce - about the same as the percentage of all women who are in the workforce.

MYTH: Athletic administrations just don't receive as many applications from women.

FACT: With top positions, one does not wait for resumes. According to sports equity researchers Linda Jean Carpenter and Vivian Acosta, "When an athletic program is seeking applicants, experience seems to demonstrate that highly qualified male candidates are identified and then recruited with the inducements of salary or perquisites sufficient to get the candidate to leave his present employer. The same is NOT true for highly qualified female candidates.

MYTH: Women don't belong in sports broadcasting of men's sports. They shouldn't invade the privacy of men's locker rooms.

FACT: Why, then, do men broadcast most of the women's sporting events? And why is it OK that male reporters, athletic trainers, and coaches regularly go into women's locker rooms?

MYTH: Sports is not an important issue for women's equality -we should be focusing on more important issues like political participation and pay equity.

FACT: Athletics affect pay equity, leadership development, and women's health. The exclusion of women from sports creates a false image of women as the weaker sex, which leads to our exploitation in all walks of life. Feminists and women in athletics must join together to end discrimination against women and girls in sports.

(Empowering Women in Sports, The Empowering Women Series, No. 4; A Publication of the Feminist Majority Foundation, 1995)

This Empowering Women in Sports report is a publication of the Feminist Majority Foundation's Task Force on Women and Girls in Sports.