In 1975, Nebraska Sen. Roman Hruska warned a congressional hearing that college football was in mortal danger. The threat came from Title IX, the 1972 measure that outlawed sex discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal financial assistance.
To comply with the law, Hruska feared, colleges would have to equalize athletic budgets for male and female sports, and the only way to do that would be to raid the football budget.
"Are we going to let Title IX kill the goose that lays the golden eggs in those colleges and universities with a major revenue-producing sport?" Hruska asked.
He need not have worried. College football budgets have skyrocketed; at most Division I schools, 80% of all sports funds go to two men's sports: football and basketball. To comply with Title IX, schools have cut other sports instead.
Look no further than Philadelphia's Temple University, which made news when it slashed five men's teams last month. Part of its stated reason was to comply with Title IX. But it also eliminated two women's teams, softball and rowing, which the university said were too expensive to sustain.
And Temple is hardly alone. Robert Morris University, a private college near Pittsburgh, slashed seven men's and women's teams. Last year, the University of Maryland also cut seven teams; in 2006, Rutgers eliminated six.
In each case, officials cited funding shortfalls. And they insisted that protecting football had nothing to do with their decisions.
According to stats culled by Sports on Earth writer Patrick Hruby, at Rutgers, one of the slashed teams — men's tennis — had a budget of $175,000, which is roughly what the football team spent on hotel rooms for its home games. And between 1986 and 2009, the average salaries of football coaches at 44 big-time programs rose from $273,000 to more than $2 million.
Title IX historian Susan Ware calculates that in 2002, 91 of the 115 colleges in Division 1-A (which became today's Football Bowl Subdivision) spent a larger proportion of their budgets on football than on all of their women's teams combined.
And don't think that football pays for the other teams either. That was a myth perpetuated by people like Hruska and Texas Sen. John Tower, who in 1974 proposed amending Title IX to exempt "revenue-producing sports." If the law harmed "the financial base of intercollegiate sports," Tower said, "it will have thrown the baby out with the bath water."
But in 1977, fewer than 1 in 5 varsity football teams made enough revenue to cover operating expenses. Today, the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. says, about half of big-time programs cover their expenses. But that statistic, Hruby reported, excludes the tax-exempt bonds and tax-deductible booster donations that fund gigantic capital expenditures like the University of Alabama's $9-million weight room or the University of Texas' $8-million "Godzillatron," a 134-foot-wide high-definition video screen that stands as the largest in college football.
Contrary to what you might have heard, nothing in Title IX requires schools to spend the same amount of money on male and female teams. Nor does it mandate an equal number of male and female athletes. Instead, it requires schools to take measures to make male and female participation on sports teams proportional to the overall numbers of men and women in the student body.
That's the way athletic departments wanted it back in 1972, when men earned 56% of bachelor's degrees. By 2000, though, the Department of Education shows, these numbers were almost exactly reversed: 57% of bachelor's degrees went to women. So athletic departments had to enlist more women to account for their growing fraction of the student body at large.
One solution was to create new women's teams like rowing, which enlisted large rosters and didn't require athletes to have extensive high school experience.
That adds a bitter irony to Temple's decision to cut its women's rowing team, which the school said was too expensive to maintain. Temple spent $10 million last year to renovate an indoor practice facility for its football team, and school officials are contemplating construction of an on-campus stadium for the same sport. How many more athletic teams will be sacrificed to pay for that?
And if they're male teams, Title IX will surely take the blame. That's been the strategy of colleges and universities all along: Keep spending on football (and the second-most expensive sport, basketball), then pit less expensive men's sports against women's teams. It's a cynical divide-and-conquer ploy, but it has worked so far.
As Title IX enters its fifth decade, however, we should be celebrating it instead of blaming it. In 1971, before the law was passed, 15% of college athletes were women; by 2012, 43% were. Girls also made up 44% of high school athletes, up from 7% 30 years earlier.
But this triumph will become a tragedy if it encourages schools to cut other sports just so football can stay on top.
The biggest inequality in college sports is no longer between men and women. It's between football and everyone else.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory."