Last week’s NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments heard allegations that women’s facilities were not equal to those of men. The NCAA has hired a civil rights lawyer to investigate gender equity issues and to quell the controversy. In 2021, college sports appears to be overlooking a cliff of considerable change.

College sports got a wake-up call when California became the first of a dozen states to enact legislation requiring college athletes to be compensated for their institutions’ use of an athlete’s “name, image, and likeness.” The NCAA is in the process of formulating specific provisions, but state legislatures are way ahead because of the interstate competition of college athletic conferences.

The Supreme Court is currently deciding a case based largely on the economics of the college sports industry and rights of individual college athletes to share in the revenues derived from their efforts. While athlete compensation is important, gender equity, long-term health concerns and promoting higher education values deserve more attention.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, is the major co-sponsor of the “College Athletes Bill of Rights” that includes enforceable health, safety and wellness standards, improved educational outcomes and opportunities and establishes a medical expense trust fund for individual athletes. However, the most attention-grabbing provision involves “fair and equitable competition,” allowing athletes to profit from revenue related to the use of their “name, likeness, and image” and the sharing of tournament revenues that will benefit few athletes.

While public regulation of college sports is sometimes appropriate, the interests of higher education institutions, and the student athletes who attend them, would be better served if colleges and universities made a proactive effort to reimagine a whole new organizational regime for all college sports. To be credible, reform proposals must recognize the current funding macro-inequities caused by the oversized contribution of men’s football and basketball. Bluntly put, the viewing and ticket-buying market for women’s sports dwarfs that of men’s sports.

Sports are the last American institution that stratifies participation based on gender. The rest of scholastic and collegiate education does not; the military does not; almost all occupations do not. Separating the recent NCAA women’s and men’s basketball tournaments raised concerns about the equitable treatment of women. So, combine the tournaments.

Boys and girls, men and women participate in sports together in many non-intercollegiate activities. In fact, we first learn about sports as boys and girls in youth T-ball or soccer leagues and in non gender-differentiated fun runs. Most competitive road races have men and women competing together but disaggregate the results according to age and gender divisions. Lots of men and women compete on equal footing in co-rec volleyball and softball teams in leagues across America.

At the highest level of college and professional sports, women are increasingly involved in men’s sports as trainers, officials, team managers, coaches and high-profile sports announcers and journalists for men’s baseball, basketball and football. There is no doubt that many women have developed the same sports acumen as men.

After more than four decades of court decisions and executive rulings, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 requires that the number of athletic scholarships for men and women must be in proportion to the composition of an institution’s student body. That usually means that at least 50% of scholarships be held for women athletes. That’s fine until we consider men’s football that has a huge roster — up to 125 players — and a large budget. If a college is required to award an equal number of men and women athletic scholarships, and if that college has a football program, simple math dictates that other men’s sports need to be defunded. The resulting reduction in men’s “minor” sports creates an inequity of its own, with male minor athletes ending up in extracurricular sport clubs.

Among the unintended outcomes of Title IX was one reported by CBS’s “60 Minutes” that some universities eliminated men’s minor sports, including men’s gymnastics, in order to stay in compliance with Title IX. One national impact is that the university-based gymnastics network, from which many Olympic gold medals have come, is now down to only three universities offering men’s gymnastics.

Three actions need to be taken to reduce college gender-differentiated sports while promoting gender equity that reflects broader societal values.

1. To the fullest extent possible, men’s and women’s competitions should be held at the same time and place. Furthermore, combined team scoring currently used in swimming, track and field and cross country should be expanded for sports such as volleyball, tennis and gymnastics. With a little imagination, combined team scoring in basketball, soccer and baseball/softball can be developed. With a little imagination, the NCAA championships, including basketball, could go to the university that has the best joint men’s and women’s rankings.

2. Sen. Booker’s “College Athletes Bill of Rights” should modify Title IX’s interpretation of proportional scholarships by providing institutional incentives for combined competitions and scoring.

3. That leaves the elephant in the room: college football. While first reactions are that football must remain exclusively a men’s sport, it is possible to imagine that the grandeur, staging and revenue of college men’s football can be shared with other sports, including women’s sports. It is easier than you first think. First, the game day football field and venue can be shared with a soccer game or rugby contest. Secondly, the popularity and format of college football may change over time. There is currently an effort to form a college women’s flag football league.

As the Supreme Court ruled regarding race and public education “separate means unequal.” Reducing gender-differentiated college sports not only reduces gender discrimination, but it also prepares men and women to work and live together in a gender-equal society.

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