|Thursday, April 5
Updated: April 11, 1:21 PM ET
All travel not created equal for college teams
By Tom Farrey
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Get above the tranquility of the green-gold acres of corn as far as the eye can see, and Iowa can be a deceptively wicked place. Sub-zero temperatures conspire on winter nights with winds that slash across the plains like funny cars on an open track. Eventually, snow season gives way to months filled with thunderstorms and tornados.
For many years, the Iowa women's basketball team was entrusted to similar tiny aircraft. The Hawkeye women flew to road games in a caravan of four planes, none of them larger than a nine-seater -- some of them without co-pilots.
"It was kind of scary," said Lindsey Meder, a junior guard last season. "If something were to happen to the pilot, I mean, what would we do?"
Players and coaches envied the men's team, which the school provided with larger, more powerful charters. Planes big enough to hold the whole team and even give many of the players their own rows to stretch out. Planes that, although often very old, seemed to be made of more than paper when the Midwest winds kicked up.
"If gender equity is important anywhere, it should be in the area (of safety)," said Angie Lee, who resigned last year as Hawkeyes coach after five seasons. "That was tough for kids to swallow -- why we didn't get to fly on the same planes as the men."
Equity is no longer an issue at Iowa. In an attempt to address an obvious imbalance, the Hawkeye women this season began using the same national charter broker as the men's team. They draw from the same fleet of 44- and 50-seat charters.
But around the country, disparities remain in the ways that men's and women's teams get from point A to point B. In some cases, it's a matter of safety. More often, it's a matter of luxury; the men's team flies charter while the women's team must catch commercial flights at out-of-the-way hubs.
"Coaches are talking about it," said Lisa Bluder, the new Iowa women's coach. "They're saying that when they re-negotiate their contracts, they're going to ask for more charter flights and so forth. They're not just talking about their (coach's) financial package."
Travel budgets hint at the divide. Each year NCAA school fills out standard forms on gender equity that detail how much is spent on travel, among other expenses, for each team. ESPN.com requested the most recently filed reports -- those from October 2000 -- from 50 of the most prominent basketball programs in the nation, plus a few lesser known schools.
Of the 13 schools that shared those forms, 11 spent more on travel for their men's basketball teams than their women's basketball teams, despite comparable squad sizes. The most glaring disparities were at Maryland and Virginia, where roughly twice as much was spent on the men for travel, a category that includes meals and lodging. (See chart)
Iowa, before making the switch to larger charters, was right in line with that trend: $347,430 on the men, $138,669 on the women, according to Larry Bruner, associate athletic director.
Men's teams more often travel to far-flung locales such as early season tournaments in Hawaii or New York. That partly explains the higher budgets at some schools, said Valerie Bonnette, a San Diego-based consultant who works with schools to evaluate their compliance with Title IX regulations that require equitable accommodations for women.
Other schools simply figure they should be able to spend more on the men's team than the women's team if the men, as often happens, make more money, Bonnette said. However, that's "not an acceptable excuse under Title IX," she said.
Men's teams are increasingly getting around in high style. On occasion, elite programs such as Duke even make use of the official charters of NBA teams when those luxury jets -- with their full-reclining seats and on-board VCRs -- are available. However, the women's team has yet to use those jets, which can easily run more than $30,000 per trip.
"We've asked for pro charters but they tell me they haven't been available," said Gail Goestenkors, coach of the Duke women's team.
Progress is palpable -- and not just at Duke. A string of big court victories by plaintiffs in Title IX cases over the past few years has prodded many schools to adjust their policies. For instance, Louisiana State's women's basketball team began traveling in mid-sized charter jets more often after the school lost a Title IX case in 1996 involving softball and soccer players.
"You get enough lawsuits flying," longtime LSU coach Sue Gunter said, "and it opens people's eyes."
So, too, does a dead prop. By the start of last season, the Iowa veterans had come to terms with everything that came with flying on what they considered their little crop-dusters -- the regular bouts of anxiety, sickness and mid-air group prayer. No airborne roller-coaster had broken this crew. Not yet.
But on the ground, they made their stand. As they waited on board to take off from a commuter airport in Milwaukee after the season opener against Marquette last season, one of the engines on their Piper Navajo had trouble starting. The lone pilot swore the problem was minor, fixable, nothing that would keep them from flying back to Iowa City that night.
But nothing seemed to work.
"We were just like, 'Get us off this plane,' " Meder said.
So off they marched, back into the airport. They waited there for one of the other team planes to fly to Iowa and return to get them. The players got home later than originally planned, rattled but safe -- and ever more envious of the men.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org