Column: As Title IX turns 50, the future of women’s intercollegiate sports may be on shaky ground

Members of the UConn women’s rowing team rally about the program being cut. The university later agreed to reinstate the sport after a Title IX lawsuit.
(Brad Horrigan / Associated Press)

Football and basketball players getting a bigger slice of pie could mean less for women

Title IX turns L on Thursday, the 37-word civil rights law enacted in 1972 to ensure “no person … shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation” in educational programs that receive federal funding.

It is time for celebration, to marvel at the 50-year-old legislation that forever changed the landscape of women’s sports in this country. Fewer than 300,000 girls played high school sports in 1972; now 3.4 million do.

The biggest impact, though, came in college sports, specifically at the Division I level where athletic departments now had to equitably distribute scholarships across genders and where football programs annually soaked up 85 with no female equivalent. That sent ripples in both directions, spawning a multibillion-dollar youth sports industry for girls chasing suddenly plentiful college scholarships in soccer, softball, rowing or dozens of other disciplines while transforming the United States into an Olympic juggernaut, with women developed through college programs winning more medals than their male counterparts at the last five Summer Games.

Title IX marks its 50th anniversary this year with countless women having benefited from the enactment and execution of the law

So walk to the rim of the Grand Canyon today and gaze out at the wondrous beauty. Acknowledge it. Appreciate it. Admire it.


Then look down, at the ground crumbling beneath your feet.

Title IX is going nowhere. But its clout to shape college sports may never be more imperiled as the gusts of change stiffen. It started a few years ago with cost of attendance stipends. Now, athletes can monetize their name, image and likeness. Next on the agenda: paying actual salaries to college athletes.

Before understanding how that jeopardizes Div. I women’s sports, you first have to understand how they became so robust in the first place.

It wasn’t just Title IX, which applies to essentially all universities because they receive federal funding of some sort, usually in the form of lucrative research grants. The NCAA, the target of so much ire these days, was equally important.

In the 50 years since the landmark law was passed, profound strides have been made in women and girls’ participation in sports

It passed NCAA bylaw, which requires athletic departments playing football at the highest (FBS) level to offer a minimum of 16 sports — six of which must be men’s and eight women’s — plus allocate at least 200 full scholarships or spend $4 million on them. Lower-level Div. I schools must field at least 14 teams.

Otherwise, athletic departments would consist of football, men’s basketball and an equivalent number of scholarship opportunities on the women’s side of the ledger. Or schools that don’t play football could just have men’s and women’s basketball, and that’s it — and be in full Title IX compliance.

So what happens if goes away one day, or the entire NCAA does? Title IX, for all its might, can’t compel universities to field a dozen or more sports teams, regardless of gender, or bestow hundreds of accompanying scholarships. Nor does it hold sway over for-profit enterprises that don’t receive federal funding and aren’t directly related to a university’s educational mission.

It’s a prospect women’s sports advocates, curiously, don’t seem troubled by, either out of ignorance, denial or an entitlement from decades of legislated gender equity. But it’s a storm many college athletic administrators see looming on the horizon, privately worrying about their ability to offer the same opportunities for women.

Why? Because capitalism is undefeated.

The next thing to understand is that women’s sports, with few exceptions, lose money at the intercollegiate level. Lots and lots of it.

Only about 25 of 1,100-odd NCAA athletic departments actually turn a profit, all of them in power conferences with huge TV contracts. Seventy percent of San Diego State’s athletic budget is subsidized by state tax dollars, student fees or booster donations. Actual revenues? According to federal documents from the last year before the pandemic, men’s sports at SDSU generated $10.1 million from ticket sales, media rights, NCAA basketball tournament shares, road game guarantees and bowl payouts. Women’s sports pulled in $88,935.

So athletic departments had to figure out a method to balance the books and bankroll non-revenue men’s and women’s sports they are mandated to offer by the NCAA and, by extension, Title IX. The method: Siphon off revenues from football and men’s basketball.

It worked well for years, even decades, despite violating the basic premise of a market economy. Or at least until the other driving force of capitalism — greed — entered the equation, and football and men’s basketball players began demanding a bigger slice of pie they are largely baking.

When a federal court ruled they could receive cost of attendance stipends (roughly $5,000 cash per year) in addition to room, board and tuition, all athletes — from the star quarterback to the backup catcher on the softball team — were entitled to it because of Title IX. For a typical athletic department, that was $2.5 million gone from the budget. Poof.

Now independent NIL collectives are forming around the country by boosters pooling their money to entice prospective athletes or keep current ones. Every dollar dumped into a collective is a dollar that formerly went to the athletic department.

And if you start paying salaries to college athletes? That’s even more water from the well that irrigates women’s sports.

Athletic directors have been discussing this in hushed voices for years. North Carolina AD Bubba Cunningham finally blurted it out at a sports symposium in Las Vegas last December.

“We have to think about how we fund these sports with a different economic model,” Cunningham said. “How the money in college athletics gets moved around is going to change. … We’re going to continue to have broad-based programs, but they’re going to be funded differently. Parents and families pay for youth sports. They pay for high school sports. They pay for AAU sports and club sports. Parents are going to end up paying for the college experience for the student-athlete.

“That’s going to happen in the next three to five years.”

There are two basic scenarios. One is football and men’s basketball stay within the confines of their universities; the other is one or both break away from the NCAA to form a network of for-profit enterprises loosely affiliated with the university’s name and brand — not unlike university hospitals.

The advantage of the former is retaining a university’s tax-exempt status for being part of its “educational mission.” But that also subjects you to Title IX and finding ways to fund non-revenue sports in a world where the old economic model no longer works. The obvious solution: Eliminate bylaw and lower costs by sponsoring fewer sports, which translates to fewer roster spots and scholarships for women.

And the latter scenario?

The NCAA already does not organize the College Football Playoff or distribute its riches, and the next logical step is for the power conference programs to separate completely. You pay players and essentially become pro sports franchises, which means you are subject to federal taxes but are not required by a 37-word, 50-year-old civil rights law to field a women’s lacrosse team.

That immediately eliminates football’s 85 scholarships from the Title IX equation, which ultimately means a loss for women’s sports.

Another scenario being discussed if or when football and men’s basketball leave or dissolve the NCAA: Leftover programs on campus become glorified club sports, with minimal university funding, no athletic scholarships, players cramming into vans for a regional schedule and bake sales to pay for the refs.

Purdue president Mitch Daniels outlined the grim realities last month in an opinion piece for The Washington Post.

“A top tier of young athletes will be handsomely compensated to boost the recognition of their sponsoring universities. Period,” Daniels wrote. “‘Let’s welcome the Crimson Tide, sponsored by the University of Alabama!!’

“Only a couple dozen sports factories will be able to compete successfully in the pay-to-play echelon. The rest will be left with a Hobson’s choice between permanent also-ran status and dropping down into a further segmentation of today’s system, hoping that they can still fill stadiums and negotiate TV contracts to watch actual students play. Meanwhile, they will be deciding which non-revenue sports to cut so athletic department budgets come close to balancing. Maybe they can expand club sports.”

Title IX turns L on Thursday. Does that stand for the Roman numeral, or for loss?