January 01, 2006

Women's Scholarships in the NCAA

There's an interesting post over at the NCAA's blog, the Double-A Zone, titled Membership Prepares for Historic Vote. The Membership in question is the Division I membership of the NCAA (schools with large sports programs), and the vote is on whether to increase the number of athletic scholarships in four women's sports. The proposal to add seven scholarships for women was originally adopted by the Division I Board of Directors, but then halted by a member veto. Blogger Josh Centor also wrote a longer piece on the issue for the NCAA News in November.

The proposal will come up for an up-or-down vote at the NCAA Convention being held this week. According to Centor, the membership is quite cleanly divided by size: "All 116 votes for the override came from Division I-AA and I-AAA institutions." In other words, the small fish in the Division I pond are opposed to the idea, while the Division I-A powerhouses support it.

Of course everybody is claiming that they're behind women's sports, one hundred percent, at least in public. The big schools are claiming that volleyball, gymnastics, track and field, and especially soccer have outgrown their current scholarship limits, and that adding scholarships will increase opportunities for women to play university sports. They accuse the smaller schools of opposing the proposal for financial reasons, and of being unwilling to spend more money on female athletes.

The smaller schools are painting a different picture, making a convoluted argument that increasing the number of scholarships will actually harm women's sports. They argue that the large I-A schools will be able to stockpile more of the nation's talented athletes, and that the "extra" scholarship players will end up warming the bench in I-A rather than actually participating in I-AA.

Now, initially this argument seemed a bit fishy to me, because if it applies for women, then it should apply for men, too; this is an argument for limiting scholarships, period, isn't it? And if the proposal would make the number of scholarships more equal for men and women, then the argument against it really doesn't hold water.

But I was surprised to learn from the NCAA Division I Manual that this proposal would make the number of scholarships more unequal in these four sports:

Table 1 — Men's and Women's Sports Scholarship Limits, NCAA Division I
SportMen's CurrentWomen's CurrentWomen's Proposed
Cross Country/Track & Field12.61820

This is probably not that surprising to people who know the NCAA more intimately than I do. Although I attended one of those Division I-A powerhouses as a graduate student, I was not a varsity athlete. And although I am of course aware of the infamous Title IX, I had not realized the extent of the impact on these "non-major" sports.

Now, just to be clear, I am not a Title IX opponent and I am not arguing that more women's scholarships are unnecessary because there are already more women's scholarships than men's scholarships in these four sports. Let's just take it as a given that increasing opportunities for female athletes in the NCAA is a good thing. But I think that there is, after all, a legitimate argument here about the best way to provide those opportunities. Doug Fullerton, commissioner of the Big Sky Conference and a supporter of the veto, argues that the way to increase real opportunities for women is to add another women's sport; that's funding that increases the number of women actually playing, not just those getting a scholarship to sit on the bench.

There are lots of bloggers out there who follow the NCAA very closely and write intelligently on Title IX and its implications (Sports Law Blog, The Sports Economist, After Atalanta). Perhaps some of them will weigh in on this topic.

The convention starts on Thursday this week.

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