SBJ/July 18-22, 2011/Opinion

Gender equity best served by creativity, not loopholes

We noted with interest a recent front-page column in The New York Times about numerous NCAA universities and colleges “relying on deception” to “undermine gender equity.” You saw that story, right? Even if you didn’t, it’s worth noting that one of the world’s leading publications allotted front page space to this topic.

Is it a good thing? As two fathers with daughters, we absolutely think so because gender equity is of huge interest to us personally as well as professionally.

The article uncovered numerous examples of schools employing shady practices to get around the concept of 1-to-1 participation between men and women. The story noted that vaunted schools such as Cornell, Duke and Texas A&M have used male practice players for female teams because those men count as women under federal accounting rules.

In some places, that’s called a convenient loophole.

Evidently, schools such as Marshall could count unqualified athletes (those not good enough to practice against scholarship athletes) to round out female team rosters. The worst situation may have involved the University of South Florida, a Big East school, which seemingly was exposed for having certified 75 female runners on its women’s cross country team in order to help USF comply with Title IX.

Wait a minute. What’s going on here? We’re approaching the 40th anniversary of Title IX, and schools are double- and triple-counting women to get around the fact they don’t have true gender equity? That’s more than concerning. It’s illegal.

And, most importantly, legal or not, what does this mean for female athletes? Are we lying to our daughters when we tell them Title IX and CIS’s Equity and Equality Policy (CIS: Canadian Interuniversity Sport — Canada’s NCAA equivalent) provide them with the same opportunities as their brothers?

The problem seems to fester in the reality, sometimes mouthed by athletic directors at major institutions, that it’s easier to add student athletes to a Division I roster than to start a new sport. But we’d like to ask if that truism is always true. Or, is the problem based on which sports can generate revenue and which ones will lose a boatload?

Are we afraid to invent new sports or find creative solutions?

There’s no questioning that the availability of finite resources (travel budgets, facilities, coaching, equipment, etc.) makes it easier to avoid adding new sports, but ­— as we often tell our students — there are always other ways. Management is, at its core, a creative as well as a quantitative science.

The recent rescue of the about-to-be-cut women’s hockey team at St. Mary’s University in Halifax is a prime example. Following an outcry when the team was put on the chopping block by the university, donations (led by Canadian Tire, a Canadian retail institution) saved the team — and a positive, far-reaching story for the sport, the university and Canadian Tire emerged. The term “entrepreneurial” comes to mind in looking at this case and prompts the question: Where are the true entrepreneurs for sports?

The crux of the quota dilemma, often bemoaned by those responsible for achieving gender equity, is that men’s football — the bear that usually drives the majority of revenue (but not necessarily profits) for a university — requires 60 to 100 young men. Given North America’s historical love of this game, finding those young men and filling a team with 22 starters is not difficult. But finding a new sport that could easily attract 60 to 100 women is much harder because of the on-field/court/ice player limitations of many traditional sports like lacrosse (10), softball (nine), ice hockey (six) and basketball (five).

But what if a new sport was invented that combined the game flow of soccer, basketball and lacrosse with the ability to generate true 60-person rosters?

Want an idea? Look to other countries and cultures. Take Australia, for example. The Aussies’ biggest sport is Australian rules football, and the game is played with no pads (hence reduced cost) on a large oval pitch. Traditionally, teams have 22 players (18 on the field at once with four interchanges), but it is easy to imagine large rosters with frequent substitutions. It’s feasible to imagine bringing this model to our existing football or soccer stadiums.

If Aussie Rules is too far afield for you, then think of a special sport or adapted sport (like Ultimate Frisbee) that is attractive to young athletes, interesting to university student spectators, yet could be good for TV and online streaming. Other industries do it every day (adapt/create products), so why can’t we?

As a side note, one of us is from Springfield, Mass., and few children grow up there without knowing that Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian, invented the game of basketball in order to create an indoor sport during the winter. This was more than 100 years ago and is still talked about widely today. Have we lost the ability to invent or modify?

Maybe so.

But this truism remains: If we want gender equity, we’ve got to stop focusing on dated concepts and loopholes and look for creative ways to make the word “equal” exciting and not limiting.

Rick Burton (rhburton@syr.edu) is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly (norman.oreilly@uottawa.ca) is an associate professor of sport business at the University of Ottawa.

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