June 23, 2010

Why it’s time to get beyond Title IX

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: , — wendyp @ 6:58 am

There isn’t a young girl or grown woman in America who’s taken up playing basketball — or any other sport — and who hasn’t received a constant reminder of the hard-won privilege she enjoys to be able to play the game she loves.

The activists who fought the necessary battles to open up the courts, fields, pools and coaching and administrative ranks for females in sports have influenced a generation of women who know that they owe their opportunities largely to the passage of a federal education law 38 years ago today.

Title IX is properly credited with ushering in the explosion of participation in sports for females across the board, and most notably basketball, the so-called “flagship” women’s sport at the high school and college levels.

But there’s another side to its legacy that threatens to tarnish the positive effects and cloud the challenges facing a more globalized women’s athletics landscape. Ever since the mid-1990s, when Title IX activists began pushing for proportionality — something they deny, of course — the women’s sports movement has veered away from the noble intent of the law, and away from embracing any reasonable definition of fairness for young athletes of both genders.

I’m not alone in this assertion, and those of us who are critical of what has happened do not oppose Title IX, but rather the claims, tactics and objectives of its most dogmatic defenders. In my mind, these activists have badly damaged the embrace of women’s sports as much as any rank misogynist.

Best example of that: The Brown University saga illustrating the fanatical obsession with playing the “numbers game” that has become a life-and-death ritual for many Title IX activists.

This is absurd, of course, almost as much as Division I women’s basketball teams getting 15 full-ride scholarships under NCAA mandates, to just 12 for men, when few programs play even 10 players on a regular basis. This prevents some badly needed parity in women’s hoops, all for the mere sake of increasing the female participation head-count.

I got another eye-opener in this regard in 2003, at a federal Title IX commission hearing in Atlanta. By then, advocates for embattled men’s sports like wresting, gymnastics and swimming had mobilized, and lined up a bevy of speakers to emotionally describe how they had lost their teams — and their chance to play — because their schools had to play the numbers game. Women’s teams weren’t being added in some cases as much as the number of men were being reduced to avoid legal action.

Conversely, the speakers in favor of maintaining the Title IX status quo were equally dramatic. A hoops coach was nearly in tears talking about what the law meant to her as a former player, and to those she was coaching. Young girls too young to have heard the word “proportionality” before stepping into the auditorium were spouting similar sentiments, likely scripted, hardly convincing.

If sports make you stronger, I thought to myself, why are individuals on both sides reducing themselves to puddles?

Most recently, the Obama Administration earned its bona fides with the Title IX establishment by reversing a Bush-era policy that was rarely used and that few people outside a tiny cluster of activists, lawyers and athletics administrators even knew about. Yet media cheerleaders couldn’t contain their melodramatic glee.

Is this what Title IX has come to? Rigid postulating, staging photo-ops, browbeating critics, threatening and filing endless lawsuits and needlessly wasting time, energy and money haggling over numbers? Is this how petty Title IX activists — and to some degree their opponents — have become?

It’s time to scrap the three-part Title IX test for compliance — now 31 years old, dating back to the AIAW era, reflecting a very different campus environment for female students and athletes when I was in school — and start anew. The first thing to go should be the the noxious proportionality provision that is being used primarily as a bludgeon.

It’s also time for Title IX activists to make their peace with football, their convenient bête noire. Believe or not, their football antagonists have made some concessions over the years, such as reductions in scholarships. Some more cuts at the FBS level may be in order, and not just a loss in players. Do BCS schools really need all those assistants, and especially “quality control” coaches?

While football at the very top levels is going to get richer and more powerful with coming conference realignment, those wishing to take a hatchet to it need to be mindful that this is the funding source for most of the best women’s hoops teams in the land, and that also lose tons of money.

The NCAA needs to be more of an impartial entity on gender equity, instead of being part of the Title IX establishment. While the late NCAA president Myles Brand was indeed a champion of women’s athletics and should be commended for that, he also left athletics directors trying to balance Title IX and financial pressures to twist in the wind.

Brands’ successor, the newly appointed Mark Emmert, ought to do something like this: Call a gender equity summit inviting the Title IX advocacy and those wishing to reform the law, and demand that both sides bring to the table concrete, substantial recommendations for what they would give up in order to reach some kind of consensus. Along with input from athletics directors, coaches and athletes at member institutions, this could form the basis for taking to Washington an NCAA proposal to rework Title IX for the future.

Of course, all this would require learning the art of compromise, and the history of Title IX skirmishes indicates that nobody’s going to back down. What was I thinking? Smoking?

Yet the challenges facing women and sports now, and in the decades to come, will have very little to do with Title IX. The growth of women’s sports around the world — where Title IX does not apply — is increasing as greater legal and cultural freedoms for women are granted in countries that have long denied them. FIBA, the world basketball governing body, and FIFA, its soccer counterpart, are expanding youth world championships for girls, trying to encourage development of female sports in corners of the globe that have not been hospitable to that idea.

Here in America, ensuring the viability of women’s professional sports, and improving the grassroots development of young female athletes, should be of greater concern than whether State U should have started a women’s water polo team.

The futures of the WNBA, the LPGA and the Women’s Professional Soccer league are not guaranteed, and Title IX is powerless to save them. The ability of young girls to receive high-level training and competition before high school and college largely depends on a combination of volunteer parents and dedicated youth coaches in accelerated club programs that also fall outside the reach of Title IX.

Activists like to pay lip service to “Title IX babies” now in the pro basketball ranks, but they also have to go overseas to make some real money as the 13-year-old WNBA has been reduced to 12 teams and is struggling to create a presence in some of its existing markets.

The Title IX activists can’t be bothered with the cold realities of the business world that isn’t under any government mandate to even have a women’s pro hoops league.

At the same time, the Women’s Sports Foundation and similar organizations still expend far too many of their emotional energies and resources to sue the likes of Quinnipiac College — and get in a huff over whether cheerleading can be declared a sport.

This week, former WSF and Texas women’s athletics boss Donna Lopiano testified on behalf of the Quinnipiac plaintiffs. Naturally, she disdained the idea of cheerleading being counted as a varsity sport, although Maryland AD Deborah Yow — certainly no knuckle-dragger — has done exactly that to help with Title IX compliance at her school.

Moving beyond Title IX is obviously far outside the bounds of a coterie of women (and a few good men) who’ve become so enamored with political activism and pushing the levers of government bureaucracy and the federal judiciary that only the lawyers, to borrow a cliché, are getting enriched.

But moving beyond Title IX — or more specifically, the warped methods by which activists are demanding it be implemented — is absolutely necessary for women’s sports to grow and thrive.

Update: It seems like I’ve angered more than a few folks about what I wrote above, which is no surprise. Also not surprising is that they’ve chosen to repeat ideological talking points among themselves rather than respond directly here. Of course, there’s no way to comment on either of their blogs; commenting is disabled. They don’t want a dialogue with those who have a different point of view, accusing them instead of not being in possession of the facts.

The push for proportionality I referred to was not about the original regulatory implementation, as Erin Buzuvis at the Title IX blog contends, but by Bill Clinton’s civil rights officer in the Department of Education in 1996. Norma Cantù declared proportionality the only “safe harbor” for schools to comply with Title IX, which thrilled women’s sports activists. But athletics directors and university presidents rightly translated that to mean: Get the numbers right, or risk getting sued.

The compliance game changed irrevocably with Cantù’s clarification, and the Brown case unfolding around the same time. Title IX activists will never admit they don’t trust the other two tests, as they are written very nebulously, while proportionality is just the opposite. Those vast discrepancies alone are reason enough to revise the regulations.

Buzuvis finally states that anyone who cites the age of Title IX wants to repeal the law. That is patently false, she knows it, but she and her advocates carry on with such rhetoric. A hell of a lot of great things have happened for women in education and athletics in the past four decades, and it’s time that the law reflects where they are now, not in 1972. The activists are in a time warp, desperate to paint the plight of women in sports as a still-bleak one that requires their perpetual “mythbusting” efforts. As well as their perpetual indignance.

As for Helen at the Women’s Hoops Blog, well, bullet-spittin’ outrage is her stock-in-trade.

November 18, 2009

It’s time to get down to business

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: , , , — wendyp @ 7:00 pm

I was feeling pretty good at a recent tipoff luncheon when a visible figure in the women’s game — not a coach — nearly spoiled my appetite and my attitude when she said:

“Women’s basketball is more than a sport. It’s a movement.”

This comment was uttered without elaboration, and it was meant primarily for attendees to support their favorite teams. Harmless enough. But a few moments later, I wanted to cringe.

Perhaps it’s just me reading something into remarks that were never intended. But for some of its most zealous backers, women’s basketball can never be just a sport. There must be social significance attached, a cause espoused, a watertight ideology relentlessly declared. The games can never be about the games. They must carry with them the heavy meaning that the flagship women’s sport truly is a movement, that in fact it should lead that movement.

If you think I’ve been surrounded by four walls too long, you are right. I admit to having some cabin fever in recent weeks writing previews and preparing for the season. But I didn’t pull these ideas out of the thin air. Or any place else. In the brief time between a sizzling WNBA finals and the start of the college season, there was enough eye-rolling lunacy coming from the Sisterhood to last for a whole year.

It began with the suggestion that lower ticket prices for women’s basketball are discriminatory. If you want to examine the data for yourself, however, you’ll have to pay to read the full report. The Sisterhood isn’t going to make it easy to be held accountable.

On the eve of the college season up popped a familiar bugaboo that activists simply cannot bear to contemplate: Female basketball players dressed up provocatively on the cover of their team’s media guide in . . . dresses.

The analyses ranged from the well-intended to the dreary to the downright depressing. Hoo boy, the folks at Texas A & M really have the agony aunts riled up something fierce. These young Aggies, we’re lead to believe, are contributing to their own marginalization. (Then they went out and marginalized Duke quite nicely.)

Don’t they know that there’s propaganda masquerading as “longitudinal research” (also available only behind a pay wall) that insists that this sort of thing just doesn’t work?

I’m not trying to be unfair to the activists and their media minions, because they do have some sympathetic guys who drink the same Kool-Aid. Indeed, they do very well to mimic the unhappy academic jargon that the outside world just doesn’t understand.

As their dog whistling lined up a fifth column to attack, they sincerely believed they were doing this on behalf of women athletes.

Yet the response from one player in particular, someone who’s struggled mightily to make it in the pro game, totally demolished these hardline notions. That a younger generation of players has moved beyond all this ought to be proof that the activism that has been necessary in the past has been an unqualified success:

“It’s not about sexuality at all. It’s a photo shoot. As women, we want to show both sides. I don’t understand why it has to be us trying to prove we’re not gay.”

Naturally, those sentiments have been ignored by their foremothers, intent on seeing women’s sports through a 1970s feminist prism that they’re either unable or unwilling to shake. Especially with so many “feminine archetypes” apparently still out there to destroy. (Why doesn’t Candace Parker realize she’s letting herself become marginalized too?)

This is just the problem: The development of women’s sports, and especially basketball, has largely outgrown these social critiques. Now the primary challenge they all face is their viability as business entities. What’s been created and nurtured over several decades, and after plenty of struggle, is on some thin ice.

The LPGA, which has been around for more than 50 years, has been reeling from a loss of corporate sponsorships and will stage only 24 tournaments next season. Women’s Professional Soccer is fighting some tough odds and the WNBA’s financial issues include the move of the Detroit Shock to Tulsa and a last-ditch sale of the Atlanta Dream to keep that franchise alive.

In addition to all that, perhaps the best women’s hoops team assembled on the planet — Spartak Moscow — is reeling from the assassination of owner Shabtai Kalmanovitch while another top Russian team, CSKA, ceased operations this season because of the global recession.

Now there’s marginalization. Media representations pale in comparison to the cold reality that for all the gains women have made in basketball, the pro game — the highest level of all — remains in a very fragile state. It ought to be flattering that concrete ideas on strengthening it are coming from most unlikely places.

As we’ve entered the period of Women’s Basketball 3.0, we’ve got to shed the notion that this sport is a movement. I agree that it is more than a sport in this respect — it has become a business, a very substantial one, that doesn’t need howling over a James Bond pose in a “virtual guide” to overshadow the real world that most female basketball players know.

March 28, 2009

Women’s game beckons Westhead back

I was still thinking about the rationale behind Oregon athletics director Pat Kilkenny’s hiring of Paul Westhead to be the new women’s basketball coach when a female friend nominally interested in the sport’s gender divide called this morning to ask me about it.

Earlier this week we met at an Atlanta sports bar to watch some of the second round games. She doesn’t have cable and wanted to see Georgia Tech’s game with Oklahoma.

As that game turned into a rout, ESPN switched to the LSU-Louisville game, featuring Van Chancellor against Jeff Walz.

My friend has been to the Women’s Final Four the last several years and is familiar with some of the veteran male coaches, like Chancellor, Geno Auriemma, Jim Foster, Gary Blair and Andy Landers.

But she’s also of a certain age (over 50) and has experienced firsthand the struggles of many women of her generation in a male-dominated corporate environment. So her perspective on seeing a certain number of men coaching in the women’s game was instructive to me given my views on the subject.

Isn’t it an ideal thing for women to be coaching women, since there aren’t any women coaching in the men’s game? This was her general question, put a bit more broadly than that, and it wasn’t accusatory but inquisitory. I cited as one example that Walz, even though a young man, has been around the women’s game for many years, from the time his younger sister Jaime was a Kentucky high school phenom. Walz also played a big role in Maryland’s national title run in 2006 before succeeding Tom Collen at Louisville.

For all the success that young men like Walz and Xavier’s Kevin McGuff and others are enjoying in the sport, they’re still part of a vast minority and always will be. I pointed out to my friend that the likes of Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph are commonplace these days. Their backgrounds, first as players in the first wave of the Title IX era, then as they entered the coaching ranks at the dawn of the media age, transcend the generational gap that resulted in so much gender friction in the past decade.

To tie together my argument I offered up what I thought was a flippant, throwaway line that there’s more coaching diversity in the women’s game than the men’s for reasons not limited just to gender or race.

How that comment resonated in my mind even more when I saw that Westhead, age 70, was headed to Eugene. His only other experience with coaching women was with the Phoenix Mercury, which he led to the WNBA title a couple years ago, before returning to the NBA. But it left a lasting impression with him:

“I found out from them more so than most teams I’ve coached that, once you get them going, the women play a terrific game. It’s enjoyable to play, it’s enjoyable to coach. Without that experience, I don’t think I’d be here today. I didn’t know the women’s game, but now I do. . . .

“If there’s a singular reason why I’m here now, it’s because of that experience.”

Even Kilkenny, who’s soon stepping down in favor of former Oregon football coach Mike Bellotti, was reveling in what seems at least on the surface an unorthodox hire.

Obviously the recruiting component will be new for Westhead and he may be only an interim figure with the Ducks — he said he plans to fulfill the entire five-year deal he signed worth an estimated $3 million. But even if that’s as long as he’s around, so what? Especially if he grooms a successor who carries forward his laissez-faire style of play.

If someone who’s spent so much time in the sport wants to try his hand at something new, then the women’s college game ought to embrace it. As I’ve said many times before, the sport needs all the good coaches it can get, regardless of gender, age or background. Although this admission from Kilkenny might rankle a few who thought he could have taken longer than 10 days from his firing of Bev Smith to come up with a replacement:

“We went for the best coach. I don’t have this great Rolodex of names that I can draw to, and that’s a disadvantage to our department. A lot of athletic directors have great networks, and I don’t.”

This is a sport that is still developing, still evolving and needs some more innovative, creative, freethinking coaches. Westhead has been all of that in the pros and on the men’s college side. Watching Oregon play ought to be a real treat once he brings in some talent and gets his run-and-gun style going.

I’d rather watch the Ducks fumbling around for a couple years rebuilding their program than see Rutgers grinding down foes and winning by scoring in the 50s. When Vivian Stringer, for all of her good work during a magnificent career, complains that her school isn’t properly marketing her program, it’s time to take a deep breath. Who wants to watch that product? Better yet, how do you market that?

The Knights are coming off an 82-point effort against Auburn as Stringer seems a little more relaxed about turning over the scoring reins to Epiphanny Prince and company. With any luck that’s start of a trend and not just an anomaly in Piscataway, and beyond this season.

And so is what I hope Westhead will bring to the women’s game. His first words to his new team: “Bring your running shoes.”

That’s what I’m talking ’bout.

February 9, 2009

The value of 1,000 wins

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: , , — wendyp @ 12:11 pm

Not long after the confetti rained down from the rafters at Thompson-Boling Arena and the honors had been unveiled to commemorate the moment, the value of Pat Summitt’s 1,000th career coaching victory last week truly kicked in.

The news that the legendary Tennessee coach was receiving a new contract extension at the same time might have been the most intriguing event related to her landmark achievement, and not just for the numbers contained in her new deal.

She gets a nice “bump” of $125,000 in her compensation package to a cool $1.4 million this season, but the incentives for becoming the first coach in NCAA history to win in the four figures and for future longevity milestones is absolutely jaw-dropping:

• An additional $200,000 for getting to 1,000 wins.

• Another $500,000 next year, plus $1 million more at the end of the contract period, five years from now, for being on the job for 40 years.

Not bad for a graduate physical education student who got the job in 1974 when the head coach left abruptly before the start of the basketball season.

There probably isn’t a soul in the women’s basketball world who would begrudge Summitt one cent of what she’s earned, or will earn, for what she’s meant to the sport, and what she’s still absolutely driven to do. It goes far beyond winning games.

But as collegiate athletics programs are feeling the brunt of economic recession, some of the toughest decisions for many of them might be over how to reward high-achieving coaches while faced with laying off staff and even cutting sports.

At Stanford, whom the Lady Vols defeated in last year’s NCAA championship game, one of the nation’s best all-around athletics programs is facing a $5 million deficit. Even Ohio State, the nation’s wealthiest athletics program — which raked in $109 million last year — is reporting a $300,000- to $500,000 shortfall related to declining men’s basketball revenues.

Interestingly enough, the University of Georgia, whom Summitt defeated for her 1,000th win, apparently is one of the dozen or so athletics programs that’s currently operating in the black. Even Tennessee, according to U.S. Department of Education numbers for the 2007-08 year, had a small deficit.

If nearly every athletics program in the country will likely encounter even leaner times than the present, what can this mean for how much will be spent on women’s basketball? It’s typically funded better than any sport except football and men’s basketball, but it also has some of the biggest operating losses. In the biggest conferences, deficits of $500,000 and up — some exceeding even $1 million per year — are not uncommon.

So what might some of the potential belt-tightening entail? Or will there be much cutting in women’s basketball, especially with tricky Title IX implications involved?

I’ll look into some of those issues later this week.

January 5, 2009

Don’t put UConn on a pedestal

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: , , , — wendyp @ 12:17 pm

The mystique of invincibility has been shattered just a few days into the new year and the second half of the college basketball season.

A North Carolina men’s team that some observers doubted would ever be beaten went down on its home floor in its very first ACC game.

But even before Boston College came into the Dean Dome and impressively dispatched the Tar Heels, the parallels — and the danger signs — were clear for the UConn women.

They certainly looked unbeatable in a 106-78 drubbing of then-No. 4 Oklahoma as Renee Montgomery posted a career-high 30 points, All-American Maya Moore had 27, center Tina Charles handled Courtney Paris and freshman guard Caroline Doty was 6-for-6 from the 3-point line.

During the ESPN telecast, Carolyn Peck was enthusiastically comparing this UConn team with the 39-0 squad that won the NCAA title in 2002, and the graphics featured position-by-position comparisons: Tamika Williams-Kalana Greene; Swin Cash-Moore; Asjha Jones-Charles; Diana Taurasi-Doty; Sue Bird-Montgomery.

Whoa, there, Carolyn! Nellie too!

There is no doubt that this is Geno Auriemma’s most talented team, player-for-player, since that perfect season (though he still won national championships the following two years with Taurasi as the last remaining member of that quintet). And that, at least on paper, the Huskies certainly do appear to be the class of the women’s game this season.

And their win over Oklahoma was as complete and dominating a performance as I can remember seeing in any recent game involving two teams ranked so high.

But it was played on Nov. 30.

Very few teams have come close to UConn, at least at the final buzzer. Georgia Tech’s 82-71 loss in the regular season opener is the closest margin of victory for the Huskies.

The day before the UNC men were picked off at home, the Huskies were feeling the heat on their second home floor, the XL Center in Hartford. An LSU team with five new starters came in with a 5-5 record and trailed by only two points in the second half before Montgomery sparked the Huskies to a 13-point win.

The plaudits remain as effusive as ever, and with good reason. But Auriemma was hesitant to place his team on such a high pedestal.

” ‘I’m not ready because I haven’t seen us in that situation yet,’ he said.

“Translation: The Bird-Taurasi group had been there and done that. The Montgomery-Charles group has not.

” ‘In time,” Auriemma said, ” ‘I’ll know.’ ”

And this is where the danger sets in. There are some concerns that seem minor now, in early January, but in his mind could mushroom into full-blown crises. Whether they spill over to the court will be heavily parsed for the next three months.

UConn averages nearly 90 points a game, and Montgomery, Moore and Doty can all hit from outside. But do you think Auriemma doesn’t wonder what Elena delle Donne’s presence would have meant with this team? A big guard with size and shooting range that’s so difficult to defend. (Tennessee certainly is maximizing that advantage with Angie Bjorklund, who spearheaded the Lady Vols’ comeback from the biggest halftime deficit in program history to defeat Rutgers.)

The bench isn’t terribly deep or experienced. The schedule (aside from Tennessee’s continuing boycott) hasn’t been much for fans and the media to get excited about. Which is why the tendency to look ahead — the Huskies play at No. 2 North Carolina on Jan. 19 — is inevitable.

But as the primary basketball residents of Chapel Hill have found out, there’s plenty of danger in doing just that.

December 2, 2008

The legacy of the Houston Comets

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: , , — wendyp @ 12:41 pm

There was a time not long ago when the folding of a WNBA franchise prompted groans of anxiety about the state of the league and the health of women’s pro basketball in the United States. The sudden departures of the Cleveland Rockers and Charlotte Sting into oblivion were jolting and disappointing. Ditto for the Portland Fire and Miami Sol.

Like many other pro sports leagues in their infancy, the WNBA has experienced the kind of flux that comes with a new entity trying to evolve its business model and introduce itself to potential fans. But the Houston Comets gave the league an identifiable success story from the outset at a critical time in the development of pro women’s basketball in this country.

Now the Comets are history. The WNBA announced Monday it was folding the franchise after many months of speculation that the team’s days were numbered. The owner who purchased it from the Houston Rockets was financially unable to continue, and the WNBA ran the franchise last season.

While it’s sad to see such an event take place, there aren’t the same kinds of concerns about what kind of statement this is making about the WNBA or the sport. The demise of the Comets began before the current economic crisis, but that certainly hastened the league’s decision not to keep it on life support.

The league has weathered plenty of storms in its 13 seasons. Perhaps its most dire situation was a dicey labor issue in a threatened players’ strike delayed the start of the 2003 season. And the moves of the Utah franchise to San Antonio, and Orlando to Connecticut, came about because the original owners of those franchises cooled to women’s pro basketball. Some other NBA owners wanted to bail too, and David Stern had to act fast to keep enough of them on board.

During all of those events, the Comets were a rock, on the court and off. Winners of the first four WNBA titles, led by Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson, coached by Van Chancellor, they made the sports world pay attention. They gave the league, and their sport, visibility and credibility. The Rockets’ ownership group reveled in the glow of that success. Chancellor rode his Comets bona fides to a place in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

By becoming the WNBA’s first dynasty, the Comets set a standard that gave everyone else in the league something tangible to shoot for. After that four-year title run, the Los Angeles Sparks won back-to-back titles. Earlier this fall, the Detroit Shock won its second crown. No other team has won more than one.

More than anything, the Comets convinced a lot of the skeptics — myself included — that the sport played at the pro level wasn’t such a longshot.

It’s true that even the best WNBA players still have to play overseas in the winter to make a pretty good living. But the league has given the sport a professional showcase on American soil that has transformed the college and youth levels. College prospects arrive on campus wanting to be the next Sheryl Swoopes. Or Lisa Leslie. Or Diana Taurasi. Or most recently, Candace Parker. So do little girls playing on AAU teams and for their middle and high schools.

The Comets may be gone, but they are the cornerstone of an indelible legacy that continues.