How women have held back women’s sports

This is the third in a series entitled “Women’s Sports Without Illusions” that critically examines the nearly four decades of the women’s sports movement, including Title IX, cultural and social developments, the growth of professional and international women’s sports and current challenges and issues.

All posts in this series can be found here.


The standard narrative script followed by women’s sports activists is that men are to blame for the slow progress of female athletics.

But it doesn’t take much digging to discover that women — female physical educators until the 1970s and politically-minded feminists since then — also have hindered what’s referred to now as the women’s sports “revolution.”

Starting in the 1890s, when Senda Berenson Abbott formulated a restricting first set of basketball rules for women, leading figures in women’s athletics wanted anything but a revolution. As much as any men, they expended decades’ worth of energy to prevent that from ever taking place.

The singular philosophical line running through organized women’s scholastic sports has been anti-commercial, and until the 1960s, largely anti-competitive. For the better part of 70 years, these women resisted efforts to expand competitive athletic opportunities, working especially hard to prevent varsity sports from trumping intramurals and “play days” on high school and college campuses.

That’s because for many of these women’s leaders, maintaining control of women’s sports — and keeping them out of the hands of men favoring a commercial, highly competitive model of sports the women reviled — has mattered above all else, even at the expense of increased opportunities for female athletes.

Maiden Aunts don’t always know best

“When equal opportunity knocks,” posted on the NCAA website in January, chronicles the dramatic, contentious 1981 vote at the NCAA convention to sponsor women’s college athletics, which since 1972 had been governed by the female-led Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. The story amply quotes two high-profile AIAW stalwarts who still believe that women’s sports was dealt a severe setback when the organization collapsed.

Said former Texas women’s athletics director and Women’s Sports Foundation CEO Donna Lopiano, the AIAW president during its last sports season of 1981-82:

“I think the NCAA takeover slowed down the development of women’s sports probably by a good five to 10 years.”

For most of its existence, however, the AIAW was short of money, and ambivalent about pursuing commercial options. The AIAW also was the defendant in one of the first Title IX sports lawsuits because it initially banned athletic scholarships, while the NCAA permitted them for male athletes.

Just let this sink in for a moment: Women discriminating against women, as the age of Title IX dawned. How many years did that set back women’s sports?

This policy, eventually dropped in an out of court deal, was a byproduct of the AIAW’s egalitarian philosophy but untenable in the wake of the new law.

From that point on, AIAW leaders were focused more on holding on to power and their self-proclaimed virtuous approach than catering to the competitive desires of female athletes. Within the organization there was disagreement about later revisions of the scholarship policy that prevented women athletes from receiving aid for anything more than tuition and fees, and other rules that banned schools from paying coaches for recruiting trip expenses.

According to data gathered by sports historian Ying Wushanley, the AIAW spent more than 20 percent of its overall revenues ($847,000) on legal expenses during its 10-year history, while allocating only eight percent ($315,000) on championship competitions for women athletes.

During its final three years (1979-82), as it battled for survival, the AIAW burned through $569,000 for lawyers, mainly to fight the NCAA.

But even well before the NCAA vote, top women’s coaches — including Tennessee Lady Vols legend Pat Summitt — were publicly saying that the NCAA was the way to go, as she reflected 20 years later:

“For me it was tough emotionally, but professionally it was clear cut. We felt emotionally tied to the AIAW, but there comes a time when you have to look at the big picture, opportunities for your sport and women’s athletics across the board.”

That the AIAW required schools to pay their own way to national tournaments also made it easier for athletics departments to cast their lot with the NCAA, which then as now foots the bill for those expenses.

Virtue or politics?

Also by this time, even some AIAW leaders had become disenchanted with the organization’s activities, including what women’s basketball writer Mel Greenberg described as a vendetta against schools and individuals supporting the NCAA move. Judith Holland, like Lopiano a former AIAW president, felt that women athletes were being shortchanged amid all this, and testified on behalf of the NCAA during the AIAW’s unsuccessful antitrust trial.

For that, Holland, then an associate athletics director at UCLA, was labeled a “co-conspirator,” as if she were the Whittaker Chambers of women’s sports. In a recent video interview posted on the Pac 10 website, Holland, now retired, affirmed her belief that the NCAA-AIAW merger was good for women athletes (picks up at the 2:50 mark):

“I don’t think you should have different rules for women than you had for the men. And the women couldn’t have an impact on the rules for the men unless they were in the same association.”

But in the same NCAA website piece linked above, former Iowa women’s AD Christine Grant, who preceded Lopiano as AIAW president, underscored the political animus of sports feminists like her:

“The whole decade of the ’80s was pretty much a whole downer. We just seemed to be losing one thing after another.”

She doesn’t define who she meant by “we,” but in truth it didn’t include female athletes. The AIAW was gone, and from 1984 to 1988 Title IX sports compliance was on the back burner thanks to the Grove City vs. Bell Supreme Court ruling, which exempted parts of educational institutions not receiving direct federal aid. (Congress pre-empted the decision by passing the Civil Rights Restoration Act, then overrode a veto by President Ronald Reagan.)

Concluded Wushanley in his 2004 book, “Playing Nice and Losing,” which culminated with the AIAW-NCAA dispute:

“Toward the end, the AIAW became more of a political agency for women leaders than a national organization devoted to the advancement of women athletes.”

But women’s sports were starting to flourish at the college level, especially basketball, in which iconic figures like Cheryl Miller and Teresa Edwards were competing. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Summitt guided the powerful U.S. team to the gold medal. Two years later, the women’s hoops team at Texas, where Lopiano still presided, won its first and still only national championship in undefeated 35-0 fashion.

While basic Title IX compliance still lagged in far too many places, the superior resources and organization of the NCAA were beginning to pay off for women.

Coming Thursday: Longstanding complaints about football hogging financial resources took a darker, nastier turn in the early 1990s, when more radical voices in sports feminism demonized the sport on cultural grounds.

Women’s Sports Without Illusions: The Series.

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  1. Posted June 15, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Is it really fair to compare Senda to women in the late 1900s? For her time, even encouraging women to exercise was revolutionary and letting them play a game where they might break a sweat? Unheard of! Lol. Many were against women doing even simple stretches. I don’t think you can compare her rule-making and philosophy (which followed Naismith’s idea of exercise over competition) to a century later of burgeoning commercialism of athletics and sports marketing.

    Overall, the essay is great and this series is excellent. Thanks for explaining in clear language and expounding upon your ideas on this hot button topic. Title IX has been obscured by so much politicking and obtuse legal language that I don’t think most people even know what the legislation actually says anymore.

    P.S. I had a temp work study job in college in the “old gym” where those first games at Smith took place, read a lot on women’s sports from that time period as the gym is now the home of the Sophia Smith Archives.

  2. Matt Zemek
    Posted June 15, 2011 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    The parallels between the AIAW and the Democratic Party are overwhelming.

    (If I said anything more, I’d cry.)

  3. Posted June 16, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Cheryl, I give great props to Senda for getting women in the game. What’s remarkable in this history is how her philosophy — and she was a woman of her times — was adhered to faithfully by her successors for decades. Even as women were demanding to participate more fully in society with the advent of the feminist movement, her egalitarian views continued to influence. They were indeed very noble, but in the wake of Title IX and other feminist-oriented legislation, it was hard to see how they would prevail. Except with some leaders of the AIAW.

    Matt, since I’m not much of a partisan, I’ll respect your analogy. Whether it’s politics or the governance of women’s sports, I wish we weren’t always being made to feel as though we have to pick “sides.”

  4. Matt Zemek
    Posted June 16, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Just to be clear, I agree with the need to not have to pick sides. (We should have more than two legitimate choices.)

    My point behind the comparison was to show how much of what passes for politicking in contemporary American life is not the artful, adult practice of forging compromises in the pursuit of hard-won reforms and gains, but (instead) milking and nursing grudges against long-perceived enemies in order to raise funds with loyal constituencies, even if said fundraising isn’t devoted to the things that actually matter.

    THAT is the deeper pattern at work in the AIAW, based on my reading of this particular post. (Why I chose to compare the AIAW with the Democratic Party instead of the Republican Party is a discussion better suited for a non-sports blog/site.)

    Your football post (Thursday) does much to illustrate the falsity and, moreover, the harmfulness of playing divisive wedge politics. In that way, part 4 is a perfect follow-up on this (Wednesday) post. I hope more readers *get* that.

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