By AARON BEARD – AP sportswriter
Title IX is always on the mind of Candice Storey Lee, and Vanderbilt’s director of athletics believes it should be for every administrator running college programs.
“I would hope that this is part of our DNA and shows in how we make decisions on a day-to-day basis,” Lee said.
It was certainly during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Title IX has at times been at the forefront of AD decisions. As schools explored which programs could be cut to save money as the spread of the virus brought the sports world to a halt in 2020, the Gender Discrimination Ban Act was a major factor.
It was an example of how Title IX ensures equality between men and women in education and prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs or activities that receive federal funding, such as B. Student Grants.
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“The law is intended to shape decision-making and behavior, and it has done so,” said Virginia athletics director Carla Williams. “I think it will continue to do so.”
Compliance can be measured in a number of ways, including whether the gender breakdown of the entire program is proportional to that of the general student body. The aim is to give women and men equal opportunities for participation and access to scholarships.
However, the closure created financial pressures, particularly for Division I programs, with lost revenue from the canceled NCAA men’s basketball tournament and uncertainty about whether football — which largely funds Olympic and lesser-known sports programs — would even go ahead.
Schools that chose to make cuts had to consider Title IX compliance numbers for remaining programs. And finally, cuts hit more men’s programs (47) than women’s programs (22) in Division I, according to data from The Associated Press and wrestling website Mat Talk Almanac.
“I imagine it would have been a lot harder for anyone to actually think about cutting back on women’s sport,” said South Florida athletics director Michael Kelly. “Except if they were already overweight or had a surplus of women’s sports and student sports experience, then maybe they were. But I don’t know too many who are in this situation.”
East Carolina athletics director Jon Gilbert faced this difficult decision.
The Pirates, a member of the American Athletic Conference, announced cuts to four programs — men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s tennis — in May 2020, citing a budget deficit of $4.9 million. The school later announced plans in January 2021 to resume women’s programs while paying more than $189,000 in a settlement to avoid a gender equality lawsuit.
“Certainly, Title IX is extremely important to everything it represents, and it’s certainly a factor as you go down that path,” Gilbert said.
“As I mentioned earlier, this was an agonizing decision that still worries me greatly on a human level. It’s not something I ever want to go through or that our student-athletes or department ever want to go through again. But the financial difficulties are a reality and still are today.”
In schools with a higher ratio of women to men in the student body, it can be more difficult to get the numbers to work.
At the West Coast Conference in Portland, where women make up about 60% of students, athletics director Scott Leykam said sports like rowing often recruit walk-ons off campus. That was difficult when the campus closed amid the pandemic, though the pilots avoided cutting any of their 16 athletic programs.
“The other thing that we had to make some decisions about … when everyone was getting this extra COVID redshirt year was[was]making sure we balanced that male/female ratio,” Leykam said.
Financial challenges will always be an aspect of college athletics, but more and more schools are finding ways to fund and expand programs for women.
North Carolina’s efforts include the ongoing FORevHER Tar Heels campaign, launched in 2019 to support 15 women’s programs with facility upgrades, scholarship needs and mentorship programs. The campaign continues at the Atlantic Coast Conference school, which fielded women’s varsity teams in 1971 prior to the introduction of Title IX, even after exceeding a $100 million goal.
“I’m going to say that[the campaign]of $100 million just for women’s athletics is something we’ve never focused on,” said UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham, who oversees a 28-sport program where 41 of 57 women’s national team championships are up for grabs. “And that’s a big focus of this campaign.”
At Vanderbilt, Lee’s department recently announced that the school would add women’s volleyball to the Southeastern Conference for the 2025-26 season, a revival for a program that was discontinued after 1979-80.
And in South Florida, the AAC program has announced the addition of women’s lacrosse for 2023-24 and women’s beach volleyball for 2024-25. That would put the Bulls on 12 women’s sports and 21 overall.
Kelly also points to a roughly $1.5 million summer project to renovate batting cages and pitching areas for baseball and softball, fueled by a joint fundraiser that emphasized fair treatment.
“I’ll bet you if I had a donor 25 or 30 years ago that just wanted to support baseball, the softball donor would have fallen and stayed behind,” Kelly said, adding, “But being educated because of our staff, to.” making this more conscious as a whole became a joint project.
“At the end of the day it worked out great because (the donors) understood that and hopefully that will set an example for other projects that we do in the future.”
For Lee, in her sophomore year as the SEC’s first female AD, this is an example of what she hopes will be the norm for track and field administrators.
“I would hope that over the next 50 years that commitment to gender equality really gets burned into who we are, what we do every day,” Lee said.
“They hope it continues to create more opportunities at every level, not just for athletes, but for coaches, administrators, executives and CEOs,” she said. “I’d just like to see it almost taken for granted because it becomes a clear part of who we are.”
AP sports writer Hank Kurz in Charlottesville, Virginia; Anne M. Peterson of Portland, Oregon; and Teresa M. Walker of Nashville, Tennessee; contributed to this report.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap
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