The sexual de-evolution in sports

Originally Published: March 25, 2004
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

She coached field hockey, netball and track in Scotland in the 1950s. She coached basketball in Canada in the 1960s. In the 1970s, she became the University of Iowa's first women's athletic director and, with the birth of Title IX, one of its most passionate champions.

Christine Grant is well into her 60s, Title IX is nearly half her age, but still she fights the good fight from her office in Iowa City. The silver-haired associate professor in Iowa's Department of Health and Sports Studies doggedly returns phone calls -- even if it requires seven attempts stretched over eight days.

Betsy Hoffman
Gary Barnett found himself in hot water with Colorado president Betsy Hoffman after he dismissed a female player's allegation of rape.
"You may not believe it," she says in a marvelously textured accent, "but this is Christine Grant."

After a series of events that seem, at the very least, to have stymied the women's athletic movement -- including an aggressive reexamination of Title IX by the current Bush administration -- she still is not at a loss for words.

"I think we're sitting at the crossroads," Grant says, digging through her files and rustling papers. "While the participation numbers have been going up for women quite well in Division I-A, the recruiting budgets and total expenses for women's athletics are pathetically below where they should be."

Crossroads? Before you dismiss the voice as shrill and the tone as hysterical, understand that Grant has never been satisfied with the way things are. Her forward focus has always been on true gender equity in athletics. Lately, she admits, it's been a tough go.

After the success of the American women at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the athletic arena seemed to open up for females. Serena and Venus Williams signed lucrative endorsement deals that, only a few years before, didn't seem possible. Last year, in the world of golf alone, there were the signature successes of Annika Sorenstam, Suzy Whaley and Michelle Wie, who broke the gender barrier and competed in men's tournaments. The WNBA was still in business, even if the Women's United Soccer Association, after three tentative seasons, wasn't.

But recent revelations about University of Colorado's out-of-control football program left many of the female gender wondering if equity was a good thing. According to depositions in lawsuits, recruits visiting Boulder in early 2001 attended parties where sex and alcohol were readily available. Similar stories have surfaced on campuses around the country. Sports Illustrated published a story about Katie Hnida, who was invited by then-coach Rick Neuheisel to try out for Colorado's football team as a walk-on. But then Neuheisel departed and was replaced by Gary Barnett.

"Basically, we were doing her a favor," Barnett said of Hnida, an all-county kicker from nearby Littleton Chatfield High School. "None of the players wanted her on the team."

According to Hnida, she was repeatedly abused, both verbally and physically. She alleges that she was raped by a teammate.

Barbara Hedges, the University of Washington athletic director and one of the most prominent women in college athletic administration, was an indirect casualty. After she fired Neuheisel as the Huskies' head coach last June after a series of mis-steps, including betting on NCAA basketball, Hedges told Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Angelo Bruscas, "Sometimes I wish I could put a bag over my head. Do you want my job?"

In January, after 12 years on the job, Hedges stepped down, six months before planned.

Even Martha Burk sounds tired. The chairperson for the National Council of Women's Organizations seems to have accepted the notion that Augusta National will not allow women to join the golf club that hosts The Masters as long as William "Hootie" Johnson remains its chairman.

"If they haven't caved in by now," Burke recently told the Washington Post, "they won't until Hootie is out of the picture. I don't think any member is on my side, but I do know a lot of them would like to see this end."

Christine Brennan, a columnist for USA Today and one of the nation's most visible and vocal supporters of women's athletics, sees progress -- with a price.

"Are we taking two steps forward and one step back? I think the answer is yes," she said. "The story of the place-kicker at Colorado is women entering the last bastion of male supremacy. When you're a trailblazer, sadly, there will be occasions when these things happen. They are unacceptable.

"Is the question here be careful what you wish for? We've come a long way, baby, but we have a long way to go yet."

Flickering flame?

It has been a dozen years since Donna Lopiano became the executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. Her marching orders from co-founders Billie Jean King and Donna de Varona: Preserve the growing flame that is women's athletics.

George W Bush
At Yale, George W. Bush played college baseball. In the White House, he ordered the Department of Education to review Title IX.
When rumors first surfaced in 2002 that the Bush administration, through the U.S. Department of Education, was about to undertake an extensive review of Title IX, the law that guarantees a level athletic playing field for girls and boys, Lopiano sounded the alarm. When, after the year-long process, the administration left the department's regulations and enforcement program largely unchanged, Lopiano didn't sound grateful.

"This is the only full-blown initiative that the current administration has undertaken and then back down," she said from her Long Island office. "There's no question they miscalculated."

Lopiano took part in a meeting last month that included the acting assistant secretary for the Office of Civil Rights that oversees Title IX.

"They vowed to strengthen enforcement and education in the institutions," Lopiano said. "We've seen neither of those things. In general, I think it's fair to say that the gap is probably widening.

"If you look at the latest NCAA data, where the scholarship gap (between men and women) was $133 million, now it's $137 million. Female college athletics gets $1 billion less in operating support. I think the most significant change in the last five to 10 years is that men's football and basketball is eating up more and more of an athletic department's budget."

According to the latest NCAA gender equity report that includes the 2001-2002 fiscal year, 65 percent of the Division I-A athletic programs ran a deficit, up from 54 percent in 1999. The average deficit that was $3.3 million in 1999 had risen to $3.8 million.

Advocates of women's sports generally support men's minor sports but point to the sharply rising costs of supporting football and basketball. The average combined budget for Division I-A football and basketball that was $3.01 million in 1985, rose to $6.84 million by 1999. In two years, that total rose again, to $8.14 million. In 2001, 74 percent of the expenses incurred by Division I-A athletic departments for male sports belonged to football and basketball. Basketball alone, at 18 percent, required nearly as much money as all of the remaining sports combined (21 percent).

Grant, who teaches two graduate courses in athletic administration at Iowa, has a student writing a thesis on the subject. Her theory is that Division I-A schools that aren't part of the Bowl Championship Series are losing men's teams more than any other sector of college athletics.

"Those non-BCS schools are frozen out of the big money and they're struggling to keep up," Grant said. "The have-nots can't keep up with the haves in the arms race for facilities.

"We're awaiting some type of presidential intervention to demand that -- and I mean demand -- excess in men's football and men's basketball be scaled back. No university can unilaterally make big changes, otherwise it's competitive suicide. Right now, there has been no move toward national reforms."

Rita Simon, a professor at American University, served on a blue-ribbon panel that examined Title IX. She received hundreds of e-mails from men involved in minor sports who saw their scholarships disappear.

"We were often told that Title IX wasn't the issue," Simon said. "It was how the budget was allocated."

Getting in touch

Three weeks before last year's Pilot Pen tennis tournament in New Haven, summer drivers were greeted by a billboard that featured muscular images of professional tennis players -- women's tennis players. The clever tag line: "Come see 100 women fighting over one purse."

Serena, Venus Williams
Serena and Venus Williams' success on the court has translate into riches off it. Still, just how to market women's sports can be awkward at times.
Not everybody appreciated the humor.

"When we're promoting women's tennis players, many of whom are on a first-name basis with the world, you sort of feel like you're under a microscope," Pilot Pen tournament director Anne Worcester said. "As a woman promoting women's tennis, the No. 1 sport for women in the whole wide world, obviously there's a fine line.

"I got phone calls from several women who complained that we were objectifying women. We got letters saying, 'How could you do this to the women?' "

When the WTA had rolled out its aggressive marketing campaign a month earlier, Worcester was pleased with the results -- as were the players who had been consulted.

The video and print material that featured players flexed muscles and grimaced faces were also accompanied by text like "Some things need a woman's touch," "Get in touch with your feminine side," and -- not a Worcester favorite -- "Serves that travel faster than gossip."

Worcester, the Women's Tennis Association's chief executive officer from 1994-97, was a little surprised by the criticism.

"For 20 years I've done everything I can to further and promote athletes -- first as athletes and second as women," Worcester said. " 'Be careful what you wish for' is an accurate quote. You're either an entertainer or you're not. There's a lot that goes along with being an entertainer. You're in the entertainment biz, so you need to talk the talk and walk the walk."

Pat Meiser-McKnett, the University of Hartford athletic director, was 25 when Title IX was introduced. Two years later, she awarded the first women's basketball scholarship at Penn State. She's now 57, but she still hasn't relaxed.

Recently, she was talking with Hartford president Walter Harrison about the women athletic directors in Division I-A. Meiser-McKnett became the 11th when she came to Hartford in 1993; today there are 17.

"He thought that was pretty good," Meiser-McKnett said, "and I was like, 'Are you kidding me? Out of 334 schools at Division I, we've done less than one per year.'

"You know, I don't think I'll ever get comfortable in my lifetime."

"It's incumbent on the leadership of sports organizations to set the tone so you don't have allegations like we've had at Colorado," Brennan said. "At the end of the 20th century, the beginning of the 21st, that's not an extraordinary thing to ask. One would have thought Gary Barnett would have set a tone that made behavior like this impossible or at least punishable.

"Not only was (the place-kicker) 'terrible,' but she was a 'girl.' This is clearly how college football coaches and players talk amongst themselves. In their world it's OK to talk and think that way. In the real world, it's unacceptable."

After that blaze of energy that drove women to play sports with the advent of Title IX in 1972, advocates of women's sports admit that entropy has set in.

"I always remind people that social change is not sequential," Lopiano said. "Yesterday everybody was sexist, and today they're not. What happens is you have many generations. The dinosaurs are still around -- Barnett is a dinosaur -- but the newly enlightened are here too.

"Everybody's waiting for OCR to come in and sue (under Title IX). Nobody's doing anything to keep progress going. It's at a standstill. Nothing is happening."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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