There’s a reason big universities such as Miami, Clemson and Florida State have been rumored this spring to want to exit the Atlantic Coast Conference: Football. Well, that’s not quite right. It’s the money generated by football that has these and other schools salivating at the prospect of bolting for the Southeastern Conference or the Big 12 Conference. With multimillion-dollar revenues directly tied to increasing a conference’s television footprint and creating a potential postseason playoff, media money once again should reach all-time highs for select colleges and universities.
But as we mark the 40th anniversary this month of the passage of Title IX, which bans discrimination based on gender and is part of a broader law signed by President Richard Nixon in 1972, perhaps college athletics administrators should re-examine how such a windfall can improve equity for all athletes.
The bottom line is that with the financial gains of conference realignment, now more than ever is the time for some of most influential Division I universities to bring about real change for gender equity. Title IX states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance...”
This law has provided far more than athletics opportunities. Women have gained the intangible benefits of sport participation, such as heightened confidence, improved wellness and the development of leadership skills. Look no further for examples of leadership development in North Carolina than Kay and Debbie Yow. Beyond the playing field, we have seen former female student-athletes, such as the University of North Carolina’s Mia Hamm or Duke’s Nancy Hogshead-Makar, carry those benefits into their careers. Yet the research and public discourse during the past two decades repeats many of the same messages: Title IX has made progress in providing opportunities for women, though it is still not enough. We saw moments when progress was rapid as schools reacted to court decisions, and moments when progress slowed because of changes in governmental interpretation, a blatant disregard for gender equity or administrative apathy.
For the most part, administrators have lived in a legal “safe area,” satisfying minimum standards with just enough resources for women’s teams. Division I athletics leaders face a constant dilemma of trying to run a fiscally sound program while supporting both men’s and women’s athletic teams that are, for the most part, losing money. In the future, without additional funding sources, the ability to add meaningful opportunities for both genders likely will become more of a drain on budgets.
Meanwhile, for the BCS Conferences, television revenues are flowing freely. Just a few weeks ago, the ACC renegotiated its 12-year, $1.86-billion agreement, signed in 2010 with ESPN, for a 15-year, $3.6 billion deal. Each ACC member, including newcomers Syracuse and Pitt, will receive just over $17 million annually. That amounts to a $4-million raise per year from the 2010 deal.
This unprecedented windfall opens the possibility for the ACC, as well as other conferences with larger contracts such as the SEC, to create an innovative revenue distribution model that lives up to both the letter and the spirit of the Title IX law. And it is no secret that college athletics is a copycat industry. Changes trickle down to smaller schools that mimic the major programs.
Beyond the balance sheets and media equivalencies, administrators need to be much more proactive to eliminate an “us-versus-them” attitude regarding gender. Cultural change requires continued education and honest conversation at all levels of college athletics about operating as one athletic department, not as separate teams.
Consistent dialogue involving individuals as high as presidents and conference commissioners, as well as coaches, student-athletes, boosters and parents, may eventually eliminate the need for ongoing debates about what teams have larger locker rooms and nicer uniforms because equity will be the norm, not the exception.
As the father of four daughters, the oldest of whom is now within a few years of college, I am looking to the larger collegiate athletic programs — schools in the SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, Big 10, whatever is left in the Big East, and yes, the ACC — to continue this larger cultural change.
Compliance is no longer enough. With major Division I programs getting more money than they ever imagined, it is time to move out from under the shadow of the law and instead innovate to benefit and, dare I say, inspire the leaders of tomorrow.
Tony Weaver is an assistant professor of sport and event management at Elon University.