This week marks the commencement of March Madness, the NCAA’s knockout basketball tournament that’s so captivating it can result in flailing productivity at offices nationwide. But while the hoopla surrounding America’s biggest amateur hoops competition reaches fever pitch, the oft-forgotten women’s tourney—which starts this Friday—is likely be largely ignored by the general public, at least until the Final Four stages.
That isn’t too surprising. Aside from tennis, women’s athletics are widely viewed as an inferior product among the country’s main sports and thus often disregarded. Even curating data on women’s sports is almost impossible because it’s practically nonexistent. As pointed out on data guru Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com recently: “unfortunately, the beauty and breadth of sports data don’t yet extend to women.”
The raw data that does exist demonstrates just how glaring some of the gender-based gaps in pay and prestige are. But even more telling, perhaps, are some of the policies that adversely (though probably unintentionally) affect those involved in female athletics.
The Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act of 1994 made it mandatory for colleges receiving federal funds to make all gender-equality information about their athletic programs publicly available. Thanks to this mandate, analysts were able to crunch numbers on collegiate women’s sports from the 2013-14 year and publish them on a webpage on the data platform Silk titled “Money in Men’s and Women’s Sports.” The findings are revealing.
The analysis breaks down what this imbalance looks like at a number of institutions. For example, Bonnie Henrickson, who coached the University of Kansas’ women’s basketball team until last season, earned $505,000. Her men’s team counterpart, Bill Self, will make close to $5 million this season—pre-bonuses.*
This income gap is far more nuanced that it seems; and despite how it may appear, it isn’t inherently sexist. Men’s college sports are far more profitable than women’s sports are, and a federal law—the Equal Pay Act of 1963—stipulates that the salaries of men and women must be equally tied to the profit their respective programs bring in.Big differences in compensation are often tied to the money received outside of coaches’ school contracts. This money can come from appearance fees, summer coaching camps, or even apparel endorsements—and it isn’t subject to the same regulatory scrutiny applied to their school-contract salaries.
Interestingly, these nuances affect men who coach women’s teams as well. Take Geno Auriemma, the head coach of the juggernaut University of Connecticut (UConn) Huskies women’s basketball team. Auriema has won nine national titles in his career and as a result is on the top end of earnings in the women’s game, making a little over $2 million this season. But measuring Auriema’s success against that of a counterpart on the men’s side—say, for example, Duke men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski, who makes almost $10 million a year—reveals that inequality still exists.
Still, as I indicated earlier, these disparities are somewhat inevitable and have more to do with differences in popularity and profit levels between male and female sports than they do with bias.
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In the sporting world, women have made major strides both on and off the playing field—at least compared with the past. Last year, the former WNBA star Becky Hammon became the first full-time female coach in the NBA. And at the collegiate level there are currently more than 207,000 female student athletes, a 180 percent increase from the early 80s. Much of this success can be attributed to Title IX, the 1972 federal law mandating equal access for women in education, including sports.
Title IX has its critics, too, who say the inadvertent outcomes of the law’s focus on treating men’s and women’s sports as one and the same—including reduced female coach participation and increased health risks for women players—have reverberated in the collegiate-sports realm for decades. As Linda Flanagan and Susan H. Greenberg wrote for The Atlantic in 2012:
As Title IX prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary this year, we believe that many women of our generation are ready to move beyond the comforting fiction that equality of opportunity, and rough parity with boys, is enough for female athletes. It’s time to stop celebrating the raw numbers and to start figuring out how to improve the quality of women’s athletic experiences.
Indeed, male coaches have actually benefited from Title IX and the growth in participation of female student athletes. Before 1972, 90 percent of the coaches of female sports teams were women, according to a recent study, “Women in Intercollegiate Sport”; today that figure stands at 43.4 percent.
Deborah Slaner Larkin, the CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation (a nonprofit founded in 1974 by the tennis legend Billie Jean King), sees this trend is worrying. “You hire people that you know. So they [men] keep looking at the same pool of candidates and that’s male,” she said. “That’s why women are really not getting hired—because the males know who they know and they are not venturing out and exploring other options.”
Even some of the league policies reveal a bias toward men. One of the most controversial issues in recent years has been the NBA’s age-eligibility requirement, which was included in the league’s 2005 collective-bargaining agreement: “All drafted players must be at least 19 years old during the calendar year of the draft. To determine whether a player is eligible for a given year’s draft, subtract 19 from the year of the draft. If the player was born during or before that year, he is eligible.”
Prior to the rule, basketball athletes could forgo college and head straight for the NBA after high school. And while stipulating that athletes attend college sounds like a good idea, serious athletes often get very little academically out of their schooling; administrations are likely more concerned about their athletic performance often prod them though a series of easy “paper classes.” This arguably prevents them from an extra year of professional earnings and could increase the potential of a career-ending injury. The Internet is teeming with articles and opinion pieces decrying the rule as ethically flawed.
Yet one would be hard-pressed to find the same arguments on the female side— even though the rules are far more stringent for women. The WNBA’s version of the rule, which is endorsed by the NCAA, “requires players to be at least 22, to have completed their college eligibility, to have graduated from a four-year college or to be four years removed from high school.” In other words, female players are required to wait three years longer than their male counterparts before they’re even granted the option of playing in the the professional women’s league.
A 2008 study by Marc Edelman and C. Keith Harrison revealed just how glaring the discrepancy is:
In fact, the WNBA age/education policy is the only policy in any established professional sports league that precludes a potential class of players from entering the professional leagues until their expected dates of college graduation
Some of the reasons cited for the WNBA’s rule make sense. Completing college and thus preparing for a career post-basketball is arguably far more important for female players than it is for men. WNBA athletes earn substantially lower salaries than their male counterparts and therefore may be more reliant on a secondary career after their playing days are over. There’s also the argument that WNBA players are looked toward as role models more so than NBA players: The idea of a woman not only becoming a full-fledged professional athlete but also a college graduate is an ideal the WNBA certainly embraces.
Still, the policy perpetuates the notion that adult women can’t make their own choices. As the study states: “By limiting women basketball players’ right to choose between education and career opportunities, these women’s individual interests are subordinated to society’s will.”
Policy debates aside, allegations of sexism have also raised questions about gender equality in collegiate sports. Last year the University of Iowa garnered lots of scrutiny after abruptly dismissing its extremely successful field hockey coach Tracy Griesbaum. (The university sought to justify the decision by revealing that an anonymous athlete had alleged that Griesbaum was verbally abusive.) And in one of the most recent public controversies, Shannon Miller, the coach of the women’s hockey team at the University of Minnesota Duluth, was told that her contract wouldn’t be renewed because of financial constraints.
Critics were quick to blame the decision on gender discrimination. Miller started at the university in 1998 and has had one of the most impressive careers in the sport: She won five NCAA Division 1 titles and secured 300 wins faster than any coach in Division 1 history.
Miller has decided to challenge the decision in court, hiring lawyers with expertise in Title IX and gender-equality issues. “This move was incredibly disrespectful to all women, not just to coaches and to female athletes,” she said in an interview with The Boston Globe. “It is a slap in the face to our gender. I will not tolerate it and I will continue to speak out and fight it.”
Women’s Sports Foundation is currently conducting research to determine if these incidents are part of a systemic problem or just a case of a few “bad apples,” as Slaner put it. Still, it’s hard to imagine a top men’s hockey coach losing his job in a similar fashion.
“The [female] coaches are already showing that they have winning records even better than their male counterparts,” Larkin said. “Yet, they are not given the respect through money and perks for their contribution to the sport.”