Assessing the costs of women's college sports

With the 2011-12 intercollegiate athletic calendar past the midpoint, and with many off-field developments (some very negative) commanding headlines in recent months, I've found myself reflecting on how women's sports fit, or should fit, into the matrix of issues now facing NCAA leaders.

Part of my interest has to do with Title IX and how its mandates will factor into the adoption (or not) of important changes now being considered by the NCAA membership. These changes include whether to pay additional monthly stipends to student-athletes to cover the "full cost of attendance," whether to reduce scholarships in selected sports and whether to approve other measures designed to help schools manage the rising, across-the-board costs of running college sports programs.

Staying attentive to gender equity and Title IX compliance is a critical task for the NCAA and its institutions, to be sure. But this seems to me to be only part of the responsibility facing women's college sports leaders today. With the 40th anniversary of Title IX looming, this an ideal time to take stock of just how sports fit into the overall educational experience of young women and to assess whether the intercollegiate programs that have evolved over the past four decades are doing the best possible job of preparing female student-athletes for the demands of life they will encounter after their playing days are over.

Courtesy of Val Ackerman

Val Ackerman played basketball at the University of Virginia.

I'm naturally interested in this subject because I was a student-athlete myself at the University of Virginia, where I played on the women's basketball team not long after Title IX became law. I was among the school's first scholarship female athletes, and having the chance to attend a top-notch school and be at the ground floor of a sports program benefited and shaped me in countless ways.

But being a member of an athletic team at Virginia also came with many sacrifices. Because of our afternoon practice schedule, classes late in the day were off limits. I would have loved to have spent a semester abroad, but the basketball season spanned most of the academic year, so that wasn't an option. I considered rushing a sorority, but I was afraid my schedule wouldn't allow me to live up to the social expectations, so I passed. Home for the holidays? Hardly.

There were other extracurricular activities I might have undertaken, but between practices, games and classes, I didn't have time to take on much more. While I did my best to keep up a diverse group of friends, in the end my social life centered largely on my teammates, other athletes and the athletic department coaches and staff.

I sometimes wonder what my college life would have been like had I not played on a team. Would I have chosen a different major (mine was political and social thought), or taken a semester or year abroad? Would I have joined the school newspaper staff, or been a research assistant or a resident advisor in the dorms, or dabbled more actively in the sciences or the arts? Would I have cultivated a broader group of friends? Would I have taken a job? And if some or all of that had happened, would I have been more ready to face the world than I was after all the time I spent practicing foul shots, lifting weights, watching videotape and defending the honor of my school on the hardwood?

Or did my experience as a student-athlete, in fact, produce the better graduate, the better me?

Women seeking to play college sports today have an even broader range of options than I did, as Title IX has dramatically increased the number of teams and roster spots available at schools across the country. The benefits of athletic participation for today's female student-athletes are substantial, just like they are for their male counterparts and just like they were for me. But the demands on today's women athletes seem like they've only intensified, and the quest to win games and titles sometimes appears to take on a life of its own. While a handful of women will go on to pursue Olympic glory or to make a living using their athletic skills, I sometimes wonder whether the sacrifices of the vast majority -- whose playing days will end at graduation -- are producing "better graduates" and whether the overall mission of higher education is always properly served.

Are female athletes today getting a well-rounded college experience, with sports as an enhancement to their overall education, or are they being asked to spend a disproportionate amount of time on athletics at the expense of their class work and other endeavors? Are competition schedules being constructed with an eye to reducing undue travel demands, or are extended road trips which further erode "balance" becoming the rule? Are coaches giving sufficient weight to values, ethics and life skills training, or are these messages getting lost amid the pressure to win? And if schools were to report the post-collegiate accomplishments of their female athlete alums, would they have good stories to tell, or has the zeal to win championships left a few women by the wayside after graduation?

The same questions, of course, could and should be asked about intercollegiate men's sports, where the scrutiny of perceived excesses has a long and continuing history. Because of this history, college sports leaders should have every incentive to learn from the mistakes of men's sports -- past and present -- to make sure their women's programs live up to athletic and academic ideals.

More than ever, we need college graduates, men and women alike, who are equipped to lead and to succeed in an ever-changing world and to contribute constructively in all sectors of society. Women's intercollegiate athletic programs have the unique capacity to build leaders and to help develop many skills that are vital to women in the working world, which is why these programs offer so much value to the American higher education system. For women who can't otherwise afford to go to college, the opportunities afforded by sports offer more value still.

On balance, it seems most women are well-served by intercollegiate athletics participation, and I for one wouldn't have traded my time at Virginia for the world. But to ensure the most value for student-athletes, the college sports experience needs to be a means to an end, a component of higher education and not an end unto itself. If balance can be preserved and the big picture is kept at the forefront, then Title IX is truly doing its job. If not, then the claims of "progress" ring a bit hollow, and there's still much work to do.

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