Let's Put Our Money Where It Matters to Our Daughters

I don't pretend to know the answer to the NCAA's mess regarding the big money that men's college basketball and football bring to a plethora of universities across the country. But I do know that, nearly four decades since I started college, women's athletic programs are still underfunded and undervalued.

My daughter, a recent college graduate recruited to play Division I women's soccer, recently revealed to me the existence of a funding gap between her team and the school's sole men's DI program. Her school is small, so there's no big money to drive decision-making, but still, it appears the teams aren't treated the same. The women receive one pair of cleats for the entire season (August to April), two pairs of practice gear, including socks, shorts and shirts, and a pair of shin guards every other year. Come game time, they are issued socks and uniforms to use for the day. At season-end, the program reclaims these items. The men's game day jerseys carry each player's name, which means they get to keep their jerseys and don't have to share game day gear. In addition, even accounting for the fact that the men's season is longer and their sports equipment more expensive, some details don't quite add up. I wonder, for example, about the discrepancy in travel per diems for the two teams and the more generous budget for the men's gear and equipment needs. These details may seem minor, but they rankle.

I hadn't heard until last week my daughter's lament of what transpired her junior year, when her team reached the NCAA tournament, playing their first round game in slushy ice and snow on a field that was running with water, with cleats that had no spikes. Why no spikes? Because the school never provided them. Imagine having achieved your goal of making it for the first time ever to the NCAA tournament, and your school not taking care of you in such an easy, fundamental way. Imagine all the work that you've put in, only to have to start from such an easily addressed disadvantage.

I am not one to cry over spilt milk or to make excuses for poor performance, but when I hear stories like this, I see red. What is it about our culture that repeatedly justifies and allows sports administrators to focus on the men and the money and forget about the educational experience they are bound, legally, to provide -- equal access to a high quality education? I won't detail here the lessons that athletes absorb from their competitive engagement or enumerate the statistics that illustrate the correlation between sports participation and life success, but they are plentiful and overwhelmingly compelling, and why these advantages should be conferred mostly to men in the 21st century in America, confounds me.

And now, we have the newest example, much more public, thank goodness, than my daughter's experience, but much, much more deeply troubling. University of Minnesota Duluth women's hockey coach Shannon Miller, who's spent the past sixteen years building her program into a nationally ranked one, is leaving her position, forced out by an administration that cannot get its act together to follow federal law. The university is claiming budget constraints, but an examination of the details suggests otherwise.

What is it about our collective attitude to our nation's colleges and universities that, more than forty years into the Title IX era, we still allow these premier programs to give our women's athletic programs such short shrift, we still ignore the reality that our tax dollars help fund these educational institutions and we still tolerate such egregious behavior? Why is it so hard to do the right thing, to provide every student athlete with parallel opportunities, to reward success equitably, to cheer every team on with vigor and respect?

Why are we are more wedded to the status quo than fairness? Our universities aren't going to change unless we demand change. And maybe merely voicing our concern isn't enough.

What are we waiting for? Here's my suggestion: let's put our money where it can make a difference to our daughters. Any financial gift you make to your child's college, regardless of amount, tie it to an explicit expectation that all women's sports programs will be treated commensurately with the existing men's programs. Ask for proof from the administration, and verify with the athletes. They may not be speaking up, thinking no one cares, but if you ask, they'll discover that's not the case. Imagine the lesson you'll be teaching them. I sure wish I had asked my daughter when she was in college about her experience. A missed opportunity for her and her team, but, if parents get in the money game, maybe future female college athletes will benefit.