Monday, April 05, 2021

Yes...and...but...well...: The NCAA Tourney and Issues of Equality

 The following is an only slightly less contorted path through my original thought process in the wake of  Sedona Prince's Tik Tok revealing the gross inequities between the workout facilities for the women and men at this year's NCAA basketball tournament. (There was also an issue with the swag bags. Side note: interesting that the NCAA is allowed to give gifts to athletes, but no one else is.)

Initial thought

Anyone who is surprised has not been paying attention. 

Some less cynical second [and so forth thought(s)]

It seems that this very obvious disparate treatment brought some needed attention to the issue. We rarely see more than a handful (fingerful? thanks for all you do, Dawn Staley!) of women coaches speak up about issues of inequality. Not surprising given that women coaches are often fired for speaking up (#Iowa, #FresnoState, #FloridaGulfCoast, #manyotherplaces). This is good--the speaking up, not the firing. 

But of course the condemnation was of the NCAA, which is pretty low hanging fruit in terms of places to blame. No institution is going to retaliate against a coach for criticizing the NCAA over this clear mistreatment of women athletes. In short: they spoke out about a fairly one-sided issue. I feel this to be true because I have yet to hear any utterance of "keep politics out of sports." This is interesting because...

...politicians got in on this too. Most notably, Mikie Sherrill, a representative from New Jersey, is leading a group of three dozen representatives in demanding a response from the NCAA. I read this as opportunistic. There is nothing in the recent past regarding Congress's efforts to reform sports or hold organizations accountable (NFL concussion crisis, steroids in baseball) that makes me believe this action will create a reckoning for the NCAA in regard to gender equity. 

The truly less cynical part:

I chose to come to the conclusion that the reason this disparity was so glaring and that the reason Prince and her peers recognized it right away was because there has been a large improvement in the quality of experiences women intercollegiate athletes are receiving. These women are accustomed to better treatment. They have great weight rooms and other training and practice facilities; they have access to amazing coaching staffs and medical staffs, etc. 

Erin and I wrote about Title IX's equal treatment mandate in 2012. We had many, many, many examples of disparate treatment that schools were forced to resolve. I don't know if things have gotten better universally, or even just within intercollegiate sports (versus interscholastic) in terms of equal treatment. Or rather, I don't know how to measure that. 

I suspect that things are better for the top teams. So Oregon State probably does treat its men's and women's basketball team fairly equally. But that is easier to see and achieve because it is a like versus like comparison. How is the field hockey team treated? How is the field hockey team, plus the women's soccer team, plus the cross country team, plus the women's tennis team treated in comparison to the football team? Because that is how treatment is supposed to be assessed. It is not team versus team; it is based on the quality of experience for men athletes and female athletes. So if the 125 members of the men's football team receive locker room space with TVs and couches and other sweet amenities, 125 women athletes should be receiving something comparable. Are they? 

Who knows? Accountability only comes when a complaint or a lawsuit is filed. Some schools do Title IX self studies, but...self studies. How effective are they? 

The NCAA used to have an accreditation process for Division I schools which included a Title IX component, but they stopped those years ago. I argue that one (but not the only) reason this weight room fiasco happened was because the NCAA is out of touch with what is happening on campuses. If NCAA folks were going into schools, they would see what equal treatment looked like. Prince and the other women expected something better because they get much better on their respective campuses. 

What I hope will come out of this:

More student athletes learn about Title IX and what they are due because of this law and act on it.

More student athletes advocate for the equal treatment of all women's teams on campus, not just the ones that are popular or successful.

I was going to add something here about wanting the NCAA to get back into schools, but I don't think the organization, as a whole, has proven itself trustworthy or effective. My wish for its effective governance is countered by my hope that it collapses under the weight of its own dysfunction. So that's a wash. 

Congress will give more funding to OCR so it can effectively investigate Title IX complaints. Maybe it could even do something very pro-active and institute a system through which schools report how they are providing equitable treatment and not just equitable opportunities.

 



Saturday, February 06, 2021

Update: All those cuts

 Since my last post on cuts to intercollegiate athletics there have been a few developments.

1. The women swimmers bringing a lawsuit against the University of Iowa have put up a $360,000 bond to cover the costs associated with keeping the team in operation pending the lawsuit. If the university prevails in proving it is not in violation of Title IX, then the money goes to the school. Paying the bond is an indication that the athletes (and their counsel) believe they will win and that they will pursue the case even when they are no longer NCAA eligible (i.e., they graduate). 

The school asked the judge to overturn the injunction (from December) which allowed the team to continue operations. Some see this as an indication that this is going to be a long process. This is so disappointing because one, some swimmers are waiting to make decisions about transferring. Two, it just shows that Iowa athletics is once again digging in its heels into some very weak ground as they continue to maintain that the department is an equitable place. 

A line from the above linked article mentioned that cutting women's swimming and diving was a risky move for Athletics Director Gary Barta, who was the center of a Title IX lawsuit a mere four years ago. I don't think Barta sees it this way. He has withstood plenty of controversies and lawsuits in his tenure. I guess Gary Barta is like Teflon...Teflon that costs his employer millions and millions of dollars. 

2. Who decided digging in their heels on the issues of equitable cuts was not a good idea? Dartmouth. They are reinstating all five of their teams (including the three men's teams that were cut in the July 2020 announcement). The reason provided was fear of a Title IX lawsuit, which explains why the women's teams were reinstated but not why they included the men's teams. 

In a statement, the athletic director said: "We have recently learned that elements of the data that athletics used to confirm continued Title IX compliance may not have been complete. In light of this discovery, Dartmouth will immediately reinstate all five teams.” 

Curious. The AD does not know what data to use to determine compliance? Does he know what compliance is? While I am happy for the male athletes who will continue their athletic careers at Dartmouth, cutting the men's teams was not the issue.

Reinstating all the teams was a way to temporarily make this controversy go away. I predict that Dartmouth, which has over 30 intercollegiate sports, will make cuts in the near future, though. But this time they make sure they find all that data before announcing their decision.

Friday, January 15, 2021

COVID and the cuts

 There have been a lot of cuts to intercollegiate teams in the past 8+ months. Most school administrators have cited budget issues related to the pandemic as the primary reason. I don't doubt the veracity of these claims, but it might also be valuable to look at what kinds of decisions and practices athletics admins have been engaged in in the past decade plus (since the last recession) that might have exacerbated the current economic struggles. I will not be doing that work here (that's a long-term project for those with more economic expertise than me). 

This post is a roundup of some of the cuts and the Title IX implications.

Brown University

Brown's cuts, announced in June, are not--administrators say--related to COVID. They did come, however, in the midst of the pandemic. 

Initially the university announced the elimination of 11 varsity teams and the elevation of 2 club sports to varsity status. Brown carried a large number of intercollegiate teams (38, third in the US), but did not have a lot of titles among those teams. The cuts were made, athletics administrators say, to increase the competitiveness of Brown athletics. The cuts allow more money to be put into making teams more competitive, especially in the Ivy league. Thus not a budget reduction, but budget reallocation. (Again, Brown has not provided their athletics budget so no one knows if this is true or, and here is where Title IX comes into play, how the monies are being reallocated.) 

Cut: fencing (MW), golf (MW), squash (MW), women’s skiing, women’s equestrian, and men’s indoor track and field, outdoor T&F, and cross-country

Added: women's sailing, co-ed sailing

Athletes mobilized quickly and worked with the ACLU of Rhode Island and not-for-profit Public Justice to challenge the elimination of the 5 women's teams as a violation of the university's 1998 agreement in Cohen v. Brown , which required to university to offer opportunities to women that are proportional to their undergraduate enrollment. Brown said the elevation of women's and co-ed sailing would meet the proportionality requirement; lawyers for the athletes said that the university cannot count teams that do not exist yet. Not having the background to assess that argument, I will skip ahead to the settlement:

In December, Brown agreed to reinstate women's equestrian and women's fencing. The agreement also sets an expiration date, August 2024, to the Cohen agreement, which the university has said has impeded the desired competitiveness. 

A few things about this case:

  • the argument that having to maintain proportionality impeded the competitive strength of the university's athletics programs is weak. The university can cut women's programs, it just also has to cut men's programs. Proportionality is actually the only prong that allows cuts to women's programs. This is a (mis)management issue on Brown's part. It contributes to the negative "Title IX made us do it" discourse. Brown is saying "we couldn't be competitive because of Title IX." That is not true.
  • This settlement is an important reminder of the power and legacy of legal action. The athletes who argued that Brown was in contempt of the Cohen agreement were not even born when that agreement was made. I hope some history was learned here.
  • The men's track programs were also reinstated, but not as part of the settlement. The university reconsidered its decision after criticism over its commitment to racial diversity. I know this is not a Title IX issue, but it is an opportunity to encourage the historically marginalized to support one another. The cuts that are happening are not just about the single issue of gender. We see this also in the story of Brown student athlete Lauren Reischer, who is on the equestrian team. She also has cerebral palsy and never thought she would have the opportunity to compete in intercollegiate sports. Are the cut makers truly investigating whose opportunities are being taken away?

Dartmouth University

 Elsewhere in the Ivy League, Dartmouth announced, in July, it was cutting 5 sports: men's and women's swimming and diving, men's and women's golf, and men's lightweight rowing. The cuts are to address, according to administration, the costs of recruitment. Included in the announcement was mention that, even with the cuts, the university will remain in compliance with prong 1 of Title IX. Members of the women's golf and swimming teams have retained counsel, however, and their lawyer sent a letter to the school last month asking the teams to be reinstated because the university is NOT in compliance with prong 1 and that it would need to add 47 more opportunities for women in order to be so. (I have not looked at any numbers--which would be a year old anyway--to check the validity of the the conflicting statements about compliance.) The university's response--if they have made one--has not been announced yet.

University of Iowa

The University of Iowa, no stranger to Title IX problems and various athletics-related scandals, announced in August that it was cutting men's and women's swimming and diving, men's gymnastics, and men's tennis.

The university was critiqued for the way it made the announcement. The athletes were brought into the arena (safely distanced) where athletics director Gary Barta told them the bad news and then left the arena to get on with the business of being an athletic director at a Big 10 school whose football season had just been cancelled. He left his staff to address questions and comfort the athletes. Football was the reason, according to Barta, for the elimination of the four programs; the budget shortfalls that would result from a cancelled football season. But when the Big 10 season was reinstated after protestation from parents and player lawsuits, Barta/the university did not reverse their decision. There would be increased costs to COVID testing and precautions that had to be met to run a football season. Also, there were those raises (totaling over half a million dollars) were given to members of the football coaching staff. 

[There is definitely a Title IX issue with football, at many schools, being the only sport that was allowed to happen this past fall. This is an issue for another post.]

The reaffirmation of the cuts resulted in the women's swim team filing a Title IX lawsuit against the university. Iowa claims prong 1 compliance but a 2016 OCR investigation could not confirm that it met proportionality requirements and the current lawsuit states that the university has padded its rosters (for example fielding a women's rowing team whose total roster is more than 40% higher than the average DI team) rather than providing real opportunities for women athletes. The lawsuit also states that the proportionality gap is equal to around 50 opportunities. That is more than enough to field a women's team (or 2...). 

The swimmers won an injunction at the end of December that prevents the university from cutting the team until the lawsuit goes to court.

Eastern Carolina University

In May ECU cut four sports: women's and men's swimming and diving, and men's and women's tennis. Under threat of a lawsuit from the cut women's teams, the university reversed its decision last week. In the announcement, the athletics director said they hired a Title IX consultant after receiving notice that the women were planning a lawsuit. One issue was that 60% of scholarships dollars go to male athletes but the school has a near 50-50 split of men and women athletes. ECU now has to work on hiring back or hiring new coaches for the teams. 

William and Mary

The Virginia college cut 7 sports in September but facing a lawsuit from the eliminated women's teams (swimming and diving, volleyball, gymnastics), all three were reinstated a month later. A spokesperson for the college said it was to avoid costly litigation. It was also announced that the school would do a compliance review and come up with a plan to achieve equity in athletics opportunities. The quick turnabout seemed to be due in part to the initial announcement letter; it was plagiarized from the letter Stanford University used to announce its own cuts. Facing a vote of no confidence, the athletics director (who issued the letter) resigned. 

The college also chose to reinstate the cut men's teams. They will conduct a Title IX review to be completed by the end of the summer.

While I am glad that ECU and William and Mary quickly changed courses, it's curious and worrisome that they made the cuts so cavalierly in the first place, i.e., without any regard to gender equity. In  November, I was on a panel about COVID and Title IX as part of the annual North American Society for the Sociology of Sport meeting. We discussed how the pandemic will (or already has) impact(ed) equality in athletics; how are the decisions made; how are they being framed; what are the more subtle effects that might not be visible to those outside of athletics; how are women coaches being affected in the short and long term. 

There are so many questions currently and coming. Cuts are an immediate effect of pandemic-induced budget shortfalls, and thus they are the easiest (relatively speaking) to discuss at this moment. But I hope to be able to delve into some of the longer-lasting and less obvious effects of the pandemic on equity in sports in the coming months.