|Tuesday, February 25
Updated: February 26, 6:19 PM ET
Football grabs stronger hold on purse strings
By Tom Farrey
Even those who have studiously avoided the Title IX debate that has roiled for the past year know that it's been framed as a steel-cage match pitting the feminist-leaning advocates of the women's sports against a bunch of angry white males in minor sports like wrestling who want their teams back. So it might surprise you to learn who the big winner is in the formal recommendations that were issued Wednesday by a blue-ribbon panel studying the issue for President Bush.
It's neither of the above antagonists.
That's right -- big-time, D (as in Decadent) I-A football.
At the heart of the gender-equity issue are finances. About 46 percent of Division I-A athletic departments are losing money, according to the NCAA. Schools find it hard to fund minor sports for either sex, male or female, when the so-called arms race is pushing football expenses into the stratosphere. It's not just a matter of coaches like Bobby Bowden and Bob Stoops making $2 million a year -- it's stadium expansions, state-of-the-art indoor workout facilities, $500,000 recruiting budgets, $175,000 in unused bowl tickets, and rosters that sometimes run 200 players deep.
Football is a big, inviting target for reform, if not rebuke. Yet the sport was left alone by the Commission on Opportunity in Athletics to continue its fat-cat ways. Only one of the 23 recommendations to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige speaks to the elephantine issue of football spending. And even at that, recommendation No. 8 never mentions the sport or uses language that requires anything of anybody, instead "encouraging" the education department and NCAA to "address the issue of reducing excessive expenditures in intercollegiate athletics."
"They told us what we've known for 20 years," said Tim Weiser, Kansas State athletic director.
Kansas State is one of those programs that makes everyone a little crazy. The Wildcats are in compliance with Title IX with 47 percent of their athletes as women, close to the campus proportion of female students -- one of three ways a school can comply with the law (meeting the athletic interests of women and showing growth of opportunities for the underrepresented sex are the other options, which are used by 70 percent of colleges). But their women's side seems artifically inflated with an equestrian team that has 62 members and a rowing team that has 74. Equestrian isn't even a NCAA championship sport, so few schools sponsor it.
"Both of those sports were added to offset our football numbers," Weiser said.
Give Weiser points for honesty. The usual way of explaining such madness is to blame Title IX. But as he readily admits, Kansas State has made no effort to reduce the size of their football team, which includes 124 members in a sport that, last time we checked, still only put 11 of those players on the field at any one time. Football is the only team at Kansas State without roster limits, even though the lowliest of walk-ons -- not just the maximum 85 scholarship players -- counts in the Title IX calculation.
There's no proof that any team needs 124 players to win games. Ohio State won the national championship last year with 105. Miami won it the year before with 109, up from 100 the year before. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl with 77, a figure that includes players who saw action, served on the practice squad or sat out the season on injured reserve. The Nebraska Cornhuskers went 7-7 in a shorter season with 183 players.
You could argue that walk-ons come cheap, sans scholarships. Donna Lopiano doesn't buy it.
"I was an athletic director," said Lopiano, the Women's Sports Foundation executive director who previously ran the women's athletic department at the University of Texas. "I know what insurance costs. The equipment, the doctor's bills, the coaches, the tutors, the support staff that's needed for the training room and the weight room -- it's all related to the number of kids you've got to carry."
At Kansas State, each walk-on costs about $3,816 annually, according to the school.
"The amazing thing to me about walking on in college football is that it's considered a social right of males," Lopiano said. "Whoever said that everyone who tries out gets to make the team? The way I understood it while growing up was that only the best players made the team."
Actually, about half of all colleges cap roster sizes in football, according to Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches. But even that modest pattern of restraint could wither in the coming years, due in part to the persistence of Teaff, who was invited by the commission to speak at one of its public hearings last year.
"These same institutions that produce large revenues through their football programs have borne the brunt of continuous attacks," Teaff testified. "It's time, I believe, and our association has believed for a long time, to stop the quota-based culture that has developed in college athletics."
It was an audacious appeal, given that football has done nothing but thrive in the Title IX era. Between 1982 and 1999, according the General Accounting Office, football participation across all divisions increased by a total of 7,199 players, which more than offset the combined losses to male participants in wrestling (2,648), tennis (1,405) and gymnastics (1,022). The average Division I-A roster has grown to 117 players as coaches continue to insist, despite the evidence, that they need all those players to win games and make the money that helps pay for the minor-sport teams.
Still, the gender-equity commission is coming to the aid of football in its quest for even-larger rosters. Recommendation No. 17 proposes to stop counting many walk-on athletes as participants in calculating the proportionality numbers. The only exception would be for "recruited walk-ons," which the NCAA defines as those prospects who had taken an official campus visit, met with a coach or had multiple phone conversations with a recruiter before showing up for practice.
Manipulation of that system awaits, if the recommendation is accepted by the Bush administration. You can be certain that recruiting coordinators everywhere, who have proved adept at finding the loopholes in NCAA rules, will make sure that desired walk-ons have just one, good quality conversation with football prospects -- so they don't count as "participants" under Title IX -- and at least two contacts with female recruits -- so they do.
Consistently, the federal courts have validated the current Title IX test, with its standard for walk-ons.
On four separate occasions, Congress has rejected requests to exclude football from the Title IX formula.
Yet, now ... touchdown!
"It's called money and politics," said Valerie Bonnette, a leading gender-equity specialist. "The more you got, the better life is."
As a staffer with the education department's Office of Civil Rights during the first Bush administration, Bonnette co-authored the 1990 manual that showed Title IX investigators how to do their jobs. She is now a San Diego-based consultant who has been hired by more than 60 athletic departments to audit their programs and keep them out of trouble. There might be no one in the country who knows the nitty-gritty of Title IX, and the real-world challenges schools face, than Bonnette.
But Paige never asked her to join the 15-member commission. Instead, the spots were filled with eight women and seven men with arguably less experience. Most of them are administrators or coaches from Division I-A football schools or conferences -- Penn State, Michigan, Brigham Young, Maryland, Stanford, Iowa, Notre Dame, Boston College and the SEC. There is a lack of representation from small colleges or high schools, even though those communities will be affected, as well, by any adjustments to Title IX. Several pro-Title IX advocates were thrown on the panel for balance, or at least the appearance of balance, but the big-time football crowd dominated.
It should be no surprise, then, that the commission's recommendations look a lot like the wish list of athletic directors at revenue-oriented football schools. Less pressure to add women's teams. Greater use of "interest surveys" to help determine which sports to fund. Even the suggestion that the NCAA explore whether to lobby Congress in the long-shot hope of an anti-trust exemption that -- and this is one the headset bunch won't like -- could control coaching salaries.
Ironically, Bonnette doesn't see beleaguered sports like wrestling -- the prime movers in the Title IX dustup -- flourishing much if Paige, and Bush, adopt the recommendations.
"I'd be surprised if these proposals lead to the addition of men's teams," she said. "The financial crush that schools are under remains. They're still looking to cut back."
After all, someone has to pay for those unused bowl tickets.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.