Thursday, May 31, 2012

NCAA Scholarship Limits and Title IX

ESPN's Peter Keating had a column last week challenging the oft-heard claim that Title IX is the enemy of non-revenue-producing men's sports such as baseball, which receives far less scholarship dollars than many women's sports.  Keating says that "the real enemy of men's sports isn't Title IX. It's NCAA scholarship limits." The NCAA established scholarship limits in the 1970s as a means of ensuring that schools don't hoard players by providing scholarships to non-players so that they don't play for opposing schools instead.  The limits themselves, however, are not proportionate to squad size or interest, but rather, to favor revenue-generating sports.  The scholarship limit for football, for example, would allow a school to provide a full ride to nearly four entire starting lineups, while in other sports like soccer and water polo, the maximum allowed scholarships wouldn't even stretch to cover one starting line. 

Keating rails against the apparent arbitrariness of scholarship limits on the women's side as well.  Rather than set them proportionate to interest, they seem to be engineered again to protect revenue-generating sports, like basketball.  And, he says, "by handing down artificially high scholarship limits for sports such as ice hockey and rugby, the NCAA is telling schools they can comply with Title IX by herding athletes onto those teams."

Keating proposes that the NCAA do away with (or at least, greatly liberalize) scholarship limits for specific sports, and allow schools to set their own priorities about which sports they want to favor with scholarship dollars to lure recruits.  Deregulating the scholarship limits is an interesting idea, and Keating is persuasive that it could restore flexibility, accountability, and common sense to college athletics.  Some schools might decide that their scholarship money is better spent building a national reputation in a men's sport other than football or basketball, and decide to promote itself as a baseball, lacrosse, or wrestling school instead.  In the aggregate, then, we might see a better balance of men's athletic opportunities distributed among different sports rather than concentrated in football.   And the athletic director who continues to pour scholarship dollars into a mediocre football program to the exclusion of other more competitive teams will have some explaining to do. 

Title IX would still require schools to distribute scholarship dollars proportionate to athletic participation rates of each sex, so that would protect against a school deciding to distribute scholarship funds in a way that favors men's sports over women's (well, theoretically, anyway...such disparities exist now, notwithstanding Title IX).  Eliminating the scholarship limits could also allow schools to better match women's interests in more popular sports, rather than searching for "phantom" hockey and rugby players to fill out their requirements. 

I know that Division I is in a deregulatory mood right now, with working groups seeking to cut the number of regulations that member institutions must follow.  It would be one thing for Division I to tinker with restrictions on minutia, like the number of text messages one can send to a recruit.  It would be interesting to see if more radical proposals like Keatings are also in the works.