Thelin, John R., Journal of Higher Education
Historical Perspective on the Political Economy of Intercollegiate Athletics in the Era of Title IX, 1972-1997
On April 21, 1997 the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case of Brown University versus Cohen, thus upholding a lower court decision to require the university to adhere to strict criteria for demonstrating gender equity in intercollegiate athletics. Media coverage described this as a "landmark victory" for women's athletic programs that would fulfill compliance with 1972 Title IX legislation (Brady, 1997; Farrell, 1997; Mauro, 1997; Naughton 1997a, 1997b). In contrast, many higher education associations objected that the court's interpretation of Title IX was unreasonable to colleges and universities in two respects: first, requisite new funding for women's varsity sports would strain athletics department budgets; second, the court's ruling relied on compliance with statistical tests that imposed "insurmountable burdens on colleges and universities" and might "lead to the very discrimination that Title IX prohibits" (Brief of Amici Curiae, 1996). Such complaints raised a troubling question: in matters of athletics and public policy, were colleges behaving like "poor losers" rather than "good sports"?
That the higher education community of One DuPont Circle was worried by the Supreme Court's ruling came as little surprise. Brown University's intercollegiate athletic program represented a "best case" scenario to demonstrate commitment to women's athletics (Boucher, 1997; Szanton, 1993). If Brown were found to be out of compliance with Title IX tests, then most institutions in the National Collegiate Athletics Association's Division I probably would be vulnerable to sanctions. Indeed, a study released by the NCAA shortly after the Brown v. Cohen ruling concluded that it would be "at least a decade" before most colleges would achieve equity in funding for women's sports (Associated Press, 1997b).
Despite such grim data and projections, a key point in the higher education association's amicus curiae brief was their claim that they supported Title IX in principle and merely disagreed with the specific tests and criteria. To examine their intriguing assertion, this study uses a historical lens, whereas most of the commentary on this case predictably has dealt with the legal specifics of the Brown situation. Adding this historical perspective to the legal debate is essential because over the long run, one must look beyond Brown to take into account trends and developments across the national college and university landscape. Here, the focus shifts to a related but distinct and understudied aspect: namely, the economics and politics of college sports in the quarter century since Congress passed Title IX. As such, it tests out some theoretical bases for understanding the general organizational behavior of higher education institutions. First, it allows one to revisit the traditional adage that universities tend to be liberal in matters of policy advocacy for society at large, yet conservative in their own practices and behaviors (Kerr, 1963, pp. 34. 94-95, 105). And second, it provides a good case study to examine the contention from college and university presidents that their institutions since 1980 have been subjected to excessive, unreasonable federal regulation (Bok, 1980).
This study responds directly to two objections raised by numerous higher education associations in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling. First, "Since passage of Title IX in 1972 have varsity sports programs for women been a primary cause of financial strains and deficits in the operation of intercollegiate athletics programs at NCAA Division I institutions?" Second, "Have colleges and universities over the past twenty-five years demonstrated voluntary compliance in data collection and self-regulation dealing with gender equity and sports to show that strict federal guidelines are an unreasonable and unnecessary intrusion on the tradition of college and university self-determination?"
There are historical data that cast reasonable doubt on the policy claims of the higher education associations. First, the financial problems allegedly facing NCAA Division I intercollegiate athletics programs in the 1990s were the logical product of conscious decisions made by athletic directors, coaches, university presidents, and trustees starting in the early 1970s. Therefore, it is plausible to consider that the projections about the inability of intercollegiate athletic programs to be financially self-supporting were due not primarily to the added expenses of women's varsity teams required for compliance with Title IX. One might also consider that the financial strains may have been fostered first and in large part to predictably risky and expensive programs, which since 1970 or thereabouts have edged Division I athletic programs toward annual operating deficits. Second, although college and university officials invoke a tradition of voluntary association and self-regulation, their historical record of providing data and resources essential to cultivating a gender equitable intercollegiate athletics programs has been erratic and reluctant for many years, so as to diminish confidence in that effort.
The Historical Record: Intercollegiate Athletics Budget Trends Since 1970
Reasonable doubts about the policy claims of dissatisfied higher education officials gain credence after finding examples of widespread, wasteful practices unrelated to women's varsity sports that over time consistently increased the costs of running intercollegiate athletics programs. Practices included the following: insistence on large numbers of athletic grants-in-aid for "major" sports and for newly added sports; rejection of athletic aid based on financial need in the NCAA Division IA group; construction and expansion of elaborate athletic facilities; and expansion of highly paid administration and coaching staff for selected sports. These examples were indicative of a syndrome among NCAA Division I athletic programs: expenses had been outpacing revenues for years--often in such alleged "revenue producing sports" as football and men's basketball. As early as the 1970s, when athletic directors in the Southeast Conference were asked to consider projections about budget problems, the overwhelming resoluti on was not to scrutinize and reduce budgets, but rather to increase fund raising efforts. By 1979 the SEC officials had acknowledged that "inflation and the cost of adding sports to the program were major concerns among Southeastern Conference Athletic Directors. Athletic administrators endorsed more plans to increase revenues than reduce expenditures. The majority of the directors favored abolishing scholarships in nonrevenue sports, while the majority thrust for increased revenues was in the area of contributions and donations" (Nader, 1988, pp. xi-xiii) The dates are important because in 1979 women's sports were not yet a required part of NCAA Division I programs. Enforcement of Title IX guidelines was modest, and when intercollegiate athletic programs were scrutinized, they were seldom subjected to sophisticated financial analyses based on such criteria as parity funding or proportionality.
The situation between 1972 and 1979, then, was characterized in large part by the lack of enforcement for or concern about Title IX. The kinds of tests and criteria that emerged in the late 1970s tended to look at such indices as "number of sports teams for women" and "number of coaches." For many athletic directors the main question was, "Would institutions be required to provide 'football teams for women' if they offered 'football teams for men?"' As for those who sought reform in big-time athletics programs, their discussions, disputes, and demands for redress were fairly silent on "parity funding" and dealt with the most basic gains, i.e., prompting a university simply to offer selected sports teams for women. There were cases where the institution did, …
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Publication information: Article title: Good Sports?. Contributors: Thelin, John R. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Higher Education. Volume: 71. Issue: 4 Publication date: July 2000. Page number: 391. © 1999 Ohio State University Press. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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