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At 35, women’s sports still growing

Ken Fowler | Friday, April 27, 2007

Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series looking at Notre Dame’s athletic department under the direction of Kevin White as he enters his eighth year at the school.

Notre Dame celebrates 35 years of women’s athletics tonight, Saturday and Sunday with the University’s biggest-ever festivities for female athletes at the school.

More than 100 former Irish women’s athletes are scheduled to attend the weekend events, which begin tonight with a dinner at the home of Athletic Director Kevin White.

“We wanted to give people a reason to come back,” said Meg Henican, an intern with the athletic department whose major responsibility has been organizing the events. “Being that these are all former athletes, we thought that some type of sporting activities would be fun.”

Henican said the idea initially was to celebrate 30 years of women’s varsity sports. But, she said, the athletic department wanted to include student-athletes who participated on club teams starting in 1972, five years before the first women’s varsity squads were formed.

“People are excited, excited to get recognition,” Henican said. “Particularly the women from the early years, the sort of pioneers and the ones who started things and had it rough and kind of paved the way for [female] student-athletes today.”

She said the celebration comes at the perfect time, as the Monogram Club’s first female president, Julie Pierson Doyle, finishes her two-year term in June.

Henican, who played volleyball for four years before she graduated in 2006 and took the position in the athletic department, said many former athletes are looking forward to interacting with current athletes and seeing how far the women’s sports program has come.

The official Web site for the athletic department listed more than a dozen responses to the invitations from former student-athletes.

“I think this is a great celebration for women’s athletics,” wrote Jennifer Hall O’Dell, a 1999 alumna who played tennis. “Notre Dame athletics has provided many women with great opportunities over the last 35 years, and I feel very honored and lucky to have had such a wonderful experience as a Notre Dame athlete.”

Events continue Saturday with a nine-hole golf outing at the Warren Golf Course and a five-kilometer run set for the morning and sport-specific events scheduled for late afternoon. The celebration concludes with Mass and a brunch in the Joyce Center Sunday morning.

Title IX

And while Notre Dame celebrates 35 years of women’s sports, supporters of women’s athletics nationwide this June will celebrate the same anniversary of the landmark signing of Title IX.

President Nixon signed the bill into law on June 23, 1972 – the same summer that Notre Dame was preparing to admit its first class of female undergraduates.

Title IX incorporated specific language about education into the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the majority of the amendment was focused on the prohibition of discrimination based on sex in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

In fact, Notre Dame fell under an exception to Title IX for schools in the process of accepting students of both sexes for the first time. The clause allowed the University six years after the bill’s enactment to comply with the legislation, although Notre Dame immediately began a women’s athletics program, with fencing becoming the first sport at Notre Dame to field a women’s club team, in the fall of 1972.

Though largely seen as a symbol of achievement for women’s sports today, Title IX makes no explicit reference to athletics, despite the implications for athletics that became part of judicial rulings in the years following its passage.

In 1979, the Carter administration handed down a three-prong test to determine if an institution was in compliance with the act. Aside from a six-year period during the Reagan administration, the test has held that a college must demonstrate any one of the following three characteristics in athletics to be eligible for any federal funding, including student aid:

u Roster spots filled by athletes of each gender are in relative proportion to the student body as a whole

u The college demonstrates of continued expansion of the women’s program

u The program fully meets the athletic needs of the underrepresented gender

“With those three tests, institutions are kind of held to a standard, and it’s amazing just how far we’ve come from, if you look at my data from my dissertation, from the late 70s, early 80s until 2007,” White said. “We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting there.”

But, White said, it took some administrators in higher education nearly a decade after Nixon’s signing and years after the announcement of Carter’s three-part test to begin to fully implement the legislation. Nonetheless, the NCAA saw a change immediately. According to NCAA statistics published in a 1979 federal report, women participating in varsity athletics jumped from approximately 30,000 in 1972 to 62,886 in 1976.

“It was an amazing time for women in sport in that particular moment in history if you just look at the growth that had transpired in a short time frame,” White said.

At Notre Dame, the changes were fast-paced. After tennis and fencing became the inaugural women’s varsity sports in 1976, basketball joined in the fall of 1977. Field hockey followed suit a year later before the athletic department discontinued the sport in 1986, citing declining interest.

But the initial years of women’s sports did not fall under the scope of the NCAA. That body only began sponsoring championships in 1982, which prompted the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) to disband the following year.

Notre Dame was initially a part of the AIAW in women’s sports but transitioned to the NCAA when it began sponsoring women’s teams. Indeed, women’s tennis was an AIAW program from 1976-82 and then went to NCAA Division II until 1986, before it jumped to Division I. At the time, NCAA divisions were separated by scholarship numbers, which led to a different timeline in each sport for ascension to Division I.

White and women’s athletics

For White, issues of gender equity in athletic opportunities and coaching compensation hit home. He and his wife, Jane, were coaches and teachers while they worked toward higher degrees. White earned his Ph.D. in education from Southern Illinois University and published his dissertation in 1983.

The subject was simple, even if the analysis was not – “An appraisal of the women’s intercollegiate athletic programs, and the relationship to men’s athletics, at Big Ten Intercollegiate Athletic Conference institutions before and after Title IX implementation.”

“It started for me in the early ’70s when my wife and I were high school teachers and coaches, and I coached a number on the boys side of the ledger at that level in the secondary school and my wife coached a good number of sports on the girls’ side,” White said. “And I would actually be compensated two or three times more than she was per sport.”

The Whites moved to Central Michigan University in 1976 – the year women’s fencing and women’s tennis became the first varsity sports for women at Notre Dame and the four U.S. military academies opened their doors to women. There, both would serve as track and field coaches – where Notre Dame’s now-athletic director would be compensated “about twice as much as Jane” for “commensurate” work, he said.

“So we understood Title IX right down to the family checkbook,” White said. “And I had a huge interest in women’s athletics because my life partner had [a vocation] for coaching, and I understood it in ways I don’t think I would have had, had I not had that experience – having a spouse coach during that particular era.”

Nationwide, the 1980s were a turbulent and dynamic time for women’s sports.

“We got to ’82, and still not a lot of activity had occurred. But schools were just starting to put in place athletic teams, create opportunities, hire full time coaches, and again it was starting to move. But that was a dramatically different intercollegiate experience than had existed 10 years earlier,” White said.

“Fast forward to 2007, and 1982 looks like we weren’t even out of the box yet,” he said, “when you look at the growth in financial advancement and just general commitment. And today, we’re not exactly where we need to be, but we’re a heck of a lot better.”

In fact, 1982 was a crucial year in the life of Title IX. In the University of Richmond v. Bell, The Supreme Court held that the Department of Education could not investigate claims of discrimination in athletic programs if the athletic department in question did not receive federal funds. Thus, every part of an institution was exempted from Title IX’s scope if it did not receive federal subsidies, and colleges could continue to receive federal support for some areas even if they did not meet Title IX’s requirements in other departments.

That ruling held until 1988, when Congress overrode a veto by President Reagan to expand the scope of Title IX to the entire institution in the Civil Rights Restoration Act.

Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw, whose first season with the Irish was the 1987-88 campaign, credited White and former Athletic Director Dick Rosenthal.

“He really pushed the limits with women’s sports to get more to a national level,” McGraw said of Rosenthal. “That kind of got things started, and then when Kevin White came in, there was an even bigger push.”

McGraw said White’s combination of emotional support, along with financial increases for the women’s teams, has been instrumental in continuing Notre Dame’s rise in women’s athletics.

“If you look at where we were then, where we are now, we have achieved progress,” McGraw said.

Mentioning the comparable budgets for men’s and women’s basketball and the similar travel and lodging accommodations for the teams when they are on the road, McGraw said the University has taken tremendous strides to achieve gender equity, and that “a lot of that has to do with Kevin White.”

Under White’s watch, Notre Dame has won four national championships: McGraw’s women’s basketball squad in 2001, women’s soccer in 2004 and the men’s and women’s combined fencing teams in 2003 and 2005 each captured those titles.

Spending disparities

Since White arrived at Notre Dame, the athletic department has added 67.3 scholarships – known as grants-in-aid (GIAs) – to students, with 38 of those for women’s teams. Most of the increases were part of an initiative, developed within the first 12 months of White’s tenure at Notre Dame, to fund to NCAA maximums the number of scholarships offered, Associate Athletic Director Tom Nevala said in an e-mail to The Observer.

Nevala said a four-year program to fully fund the GIAs began in the 2001-02 school year and concluded in 2004-05. During that time, rowing saw the largest increase in GIAs on the women’s side – from zero to 20 – while lacrosse was the biggest benefactor on the men’s side, going from zero to 12.6 GIAs.

Since the conclusion of the four-year program, the NCAA increased the maximum for women’s soccer from 12 to 14, which prompted Notre Dame to add two scholarships for the squad to continue the philosophy of fully funding all its sports, Nevala said.

McGraw said the full funding of GIAs is a benefit for every sport as it recruits, because it shows the school’s commitment to the entire field of teams, not just the profit-producing ones.

In the 2005-06 school year, Notre Dame filled a total of 863 roster spots on 26 varsity teams. The squads were split equally between men’s and women’s teams, with males accounting for 496 spots and females for 367. If two and three-sport athletes were counted only once, there would have been 389 men and 287 women playing at least one varsity sport in the 12-month period.

In 2002-03, while Notre Dame was still in the process of fully funding its GIAs, the University awarded $5,625,442 in GIAs to male athletes and $3,755,215 to female athletes, a 60-40 proportion.

In the most recent filing, the dollar disparity was slightly greater, though the percentage difference decreased a small amount. Notre Dame awarded $7,455,598 (59.3 percent) in GIAs to men in the 2005-06 school year and $5,126,072 (41.7 percent) to women.

Nonetheless, the current levels contrast starkly with the percentages 20 years ago. According to University records, the money spent on GIAs for women athletes was 19 percent of the total athletic GIA budget in 1988. That number was up from years prior, but nowhere near the 42-percent ratio the University commits to women’s GIAs today.

The GIAs are a large part, though not the largest, of budgets for athletic departments across the country.

Most Division I institutions currently spend a percentage of their total athletic budget – aside from football – on women’s sports that is relatively close to the percentage of women as part of the overall student body.

And in that category, Notre Dame ranks slightly ahead of many in its “cohort group” – the schools to which White likes to compare his athletic department. Of Boston College, Southern California, UCLA and Stanford, only Stanford spends a higher percent of its athletic budget on women’s sports.

Stanford and Notre Dame rank at the bottom of that list in terms of females as a percentage of the student body, but each spends a higher percentage of its athletic budget on women’s programs than the percentage of women in the student body.

But return on investment is a different story.

According to records published by the University in accordance with federal laws, Notre Dame’s game-day costs were $6,666,660 for men’s teams and $2,306,665 for women’s teams from July 2005 through June 2006. Excluding football, the only sport to bring in profit during the time span, the athletic department spent $261,943 more on 12 men’s sports than it did on 13 women’s sports. That difference, which equates to a five-percent disparity, though discounting football, was slightly less than the difference in overall student enrollment by gender.

In the 2002-03 school year, Notre Dame spent $177,056 on recruiting for the 12 women’s teams other than basketball. That figure was 20 percent of the University’s total expenditure for recruiting. Four years later, the money spent on recruiting for those 12 teams has risen to $199,199, but the share has dropped to 13.2 percent of the overall total. (The biggest increase during the time span has been in football recruiting, which spent $323,825 from 2002-03 and $748,763 in the 2005-06 year.)

Other challenges

In revenue streams, the men’s squads, led by football, far outpace women.

Including football, which brought in $61,463,627 from 2005-06, men’s sports earned $65,472,262 in revenue. Women’s sports, meanwhile, pulled in $1,361,139, or 2.04 percent of the total. (Revenue totals include money earned from ticket sales, contributions from alumni, postseason compensation, concession sales, radio and television contracts, program advertising and sales, sponsorships, royalties and sports camps.)

In fact, while the NCAA requires schools to list specific revenue and expenditure data for football and men’s and women’s basketball – all considered “revenue” sports – Notre Dame only made a profit on the football squad. Men’s basketball spent $19,053 more than it brought in while women’s basketball spent $1,908,949 more than it made.

Outside Notre Dame’s contract with NBC for football and its stake in Big East basketball television deals, most revenue comes from ticket sales – though baseball, women’s soccer, men’s soccer and hockey are among the relatively small group of teams with paid admission for games.

“We’re constantly looking for innovative ways to drive and to drive attendance and to raise the level of awareness and promote interest,” White said.

Still, White has been encouraged by what he calls an ever-growing increase in attention given to women’s sports.

“It’s amazing to me how much interest there is in attendance. At Notre Dame, we’re constantly a top-10 women’s basketball program in terms of attendance. The media interest in the women’s basketball tournament, the Final Four – these are marquee events today – and even in the Big East conference … We’re beginning to see more competitions televised,” White said. “Those are indicators – I think pretty strong indicators – that there is a growing societal interest in women’s sport, beyond the participant. That there is a whole spectator element that’s growing.

“And so is it where the men’s program is today in 2007? No, it isn’t. Not quite. But it’s a lot closer than it’s ever been, and my sense is that gap will continue to close.”

For the 2001-02 school year, the annual survey given to student athletes included a question about gender equity for the first time. The question gave student-athletes the chance to write at length about issues of gender that have affected them at Notre Dame. Though those records aren’t released, White said in general athletes in sports with less fan and media attention didn’t seem to show resentment toward those in the higher-profile sports – something, he said, that crosses the gender line.

“I don’t know … that I could cite a particular challenge that would be germane [only] to women’s sports. We’re constantly looking for innovative ways to improve the Olympic sports program,” White said. “I don’t see any distinguishing characteristics [of women’s sports] that I could point to. I would say we treat – I like to think – we feel as committed to a women’s softball or lacrosse player as we do to any male athlete in any sport.”

For White, working toward that goal of demonstrating commitment to every athlete in every sport means inherently enhancing the women’s program at Notre Dame.

The second part of this series will run Monday and look at Kevin White’s path to Notre Dame.