Is women’s collegiate sports as corrupt as men’s? Have the enormous gains in opportunities for female athletes over the last three decades led inevitably to skewed academic priorities, recruitment cheating, grade-fixing, and other infractions that for years have flowed as freely in men’s programs as beer in the stands? Has the liberal feminist push for inclusion merely elbowed gender balance into an inherently corrupt value system of greed that hasn’t otherwise been questioned? And why all the hand-wringing when it’s women who break the rules?
First, says Tara VanDerveer, the Stanford and former U.S. Olympic coach who will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame later this month, it makes little sense to compare women’s iniquities to those of their brothers.
“We’re still horse and buggy compared to men’s sports,” she says. “There are definitely pressures in the women’s games, but not nearly like those men have.” The TV contract with the NCAA for the women’s Final Four, for example, is $200 million—colossal considering the absence of any television coverage only a few years ago, but puny next to the boys’ beefy $6.1 billion CBS deal. What’s more, VanDerveer points out, “When men’s teams make it to the finals, money goes to their conference and their teams. Winning for them is tied to money. The women’s tournament doesn’t have any such deal.”
By any statistical measure currently available, women have not stooped as low as guys under the weight of the pressure to win at all costs. The most egregious infractions are still most often found in football and men’s basketball. For instance, Bobby Knight-style basketball coach Cheryl “Mad Dog” Littlejohn was fired last May by the University of Minnesota in the wake of allegations of NCAA violations, but her alleged crimes were petty compared to the academic scandal that put men’s basketball there on probation for four years: A college tutor had written some 400 papers for 18 players over five years.
Similarly, while steroid use by girls is climbing, it is nowhere near the one-in-40 level among teenage boys. Meanwhile, women athletes’ college graduation rates far surpass men’s: The average for last month’s women’s Final Four teams was 66 percent; on the men’s side, it was 32 percent. Men far exceed women, too, when it comes to gambling on sports—even on games in which they’re involved.
In sum, while problems are rife in the megabuck men’s wide world of sports, it’s no wonder that they are emerging at a rate parallel to the growth in women’s still more circumscribed world. And women are far from closing the gap. “It will take us eons and eons to get to a point where our culture will allow a woman professional athlete to be a Darryl Strawberry,” says Mary Jo Kane, a professor and director of the Tucker Center for Research for Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “Women’s sports is not about to produce a Jayson Williams. We’re not even in the same universe. A little trash-talking is a whole lot different from manslaughter and obstruction of justice.” But, she’s quick to add, “I don’t want to sound all pious about how women are not supposed to be as corrupt as men. That’s a morality argument that does more harm to women than exposure to corruption does. This isn’t about women, but about the institution of sport. The issue isn’t gender, it’s greed.”
Fair enough. But assumptions about supposed differences between men’s and women’s values constantly creep into the discourse. In part, that’s the piety Kane bristles at—the sexist idea that women are by nature upright and innocent and must be protected from the sinister forces men are just born more fit to handle.
The New York Times editorial board warned women during the Final Four to steer clear of “the win-at-any-cost philosophy that has deformed men’s collegiate basketball and most of the schools that field the perennial powerhouse teams.” With stolid sanctimoniousness, the Times cautioned: “As the popularity of the women’s game grows, coaches, parents and athletic directors will need to work hard to keep their sport in perspective.” That’s not wrong, of course. You just have to wonder why the Times isn’t railing constantly at the distortions already brought to fruition by men. Corruption must really be avoided, the editorial seems to say, because now even women are in danger of being tainted. And, as coach VanDerveer quips, “We like our women pure, don’t we?”
Taking the analysis further, the author and former pro basketball player Mariah Burton Nelson argues in her book, The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football, that instead of being influenced by what women bring when they enter previously all-male precincts, men exaggerate their masculinity. The mechanism operates even around a development as negative as corruption, suggests Ellen Staurowsky, a sports sociologist at Ithaca College and co-author of College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA Amateur Myth. “Female athletes have been required to legitimate themselves as athletes within a value system that says you have to be brutish and willing to do anything to win,” she explains. “Of course women are capable of doing that. So they chase the phantom of legitimacy, and the bar keeps moving. Masculine culture gets hyper-masculinized, and the stakes keep getting higher and higher. Women are constantly in pursuit, and men never turn around to see that women might have something to offer, that they might have some authority. That dynamic doesn’t produce what I would call progress.”
If that sounds too abstract, ask Christine Grant, women’s athletic director at Iowa from 1973 until 2000, how it plays out in real life. During more than three decades in collegiate competition as well as in international field hockey, she has seen women get shut out of decision-making even as their access has expanded on playing fields. When, in the early 1980s, the NCAA supplanted the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (for which Grant served a term as president) and forced a merger of men’s and women’s athletics programs, Grant recalls, “We thought that together the women and the men would rethink what college sport could be, that we would bring the best from both worlds to create the best college experience imaginable for male and female athletes.” Instead, women were frozen out of leadership, and what Grant calls “the alternative model” the AIAW represented never got a fair hearing.
Indeed, according to research by R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter, the number of female coaches and athletic directors has declined steadily. While in 1972 90 percent of women’s teams were coached by women, today that figure has dropped to 45.6 percent. Today, men head up 82.8 percent of athletic departments.
The AIAW system—keeping scholarships need-based, or at least limiting them to tuition only; developing all sports that students wanted to participate in on an equal level instead of favoring football or other mega-programs; allowing athletes to transfer and keep playing their sport; emphasizing athletes’ academic lives and requiring them to meet the same admissions requirements as all other students—was thrown out altogether. “Women were muted in the NCAA and couldn’t effectuate change,” says Grant. “Women’s sport headed down the same path as men’s.”
How could it be otherwise, when schools troll for more and more dollars by big Division I-A programs at which male coaches earn salaries upwards of $1 million, and women’s teams have to swim in the same waters? Still, the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has been trying to rein in the runaway jockocracy. “The pressures that have corrupted too many major athletic programs are moving with inexorable force,”the commission’s report of last May warns, and the near future may see ever more widespread “weakened academic and amateurism standards, millionaire coaches and rampant commercialism, all combined increasingly with deplorable sportsmanship and misconduct.”
The commission lists a number of recommendations. They sound a lot like the principles of the long-buried AIAW.