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POINT OF VIEW : Football Is Necessary for Gender Equity to Be Attained

They’re still talking about equity for women in college sports.

It still isn’t here.

The most that any major conference has yet promised is a 60-40 ratio, men’s sports to women’s sports.

And that’s only in the Big Ten. And it only refers to participation opportunities--not funding. And the pledge is not for tomorrow, or next year, but “within five years.”

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Full equality-- now-- seems fairer.

But is there a way to pay for it?

That has been the topic of the year in the NCAA.

And during the NCAA’s annual convention next month, some will urge, once more, that college football should be downsized--with fewer scholarship players and fewer coaches--to free up money for women’s sports.

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At the universities where big-time football is played, that, unfortunately, would be killing the goose to steal its golden eggs.

Here’s a two-part recommendation that makes more economic sense:

--Football’s profits, which averaged $2.3 million last year at the nation’s 70 or so largest football-playing colleges, and which could be leveraged strikingly upward, should be set aside at each school to support athletic activities for male and female students in a fixed 50-50 ratio.

--At the big 70 universities, football should be recognized for what it is: a fund-raising activity for the university.

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Football at such schools shouldn’t figure in the gender ratio. Its budget numbers and roster numbers shouldn’t count against men’s sports.

Big 70 football teams should be left alone--with proper institutional supervision--to concentrate on their primary function: raising money for universities that are everywhere strapped for cash.

Where basketball is profitable, men’s or women’s, it should also be left free to operate without gender-imposed restrictions--as should any of the few other sports that can turn a profit for the school and, by extension, for both sexes.

As a recommendation, all that may sound heretical to some women’s activists who, fighting the gender wars, have taken the opposite tack.

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In particular, they have charged in the courts and elsewhere that college football, which is exclusively masculine and excessively expensive, eats money that should be spent on women’s sports.

What’s more, at the 70 major universities, there has been an insufficient appreciation--even in most presidents’ offices--that as a way to pay for more women’s sports, it would be shortsighted and counterproductive to downsize their most financially rewarding product.

The proposals to slim it down come from critics who don’t understand that when properly tuned to the preferences of the American sports majority, college football is a money machine that can support an enlightened physical education program at almost any big university.

In the gender argument, football isn’t the enemy. Financially, football is a woman’s best friend.

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VITAL FUND-RAISER

America’s 70 big-time college football teams--at least 53 in the College Football Assn., some of those others in the Big Ten and Pacific 10, and independent Notre Dame--generate many millions of dollars each year.

That sets them apart in the athletic department:

--Most college sports, men’s or women’s, have little appeal to the public regardless of their appeal to cross-country runners, wrestlers or other participants. They have to be subsidized by somebody.

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--In a dramatic contrast, at the largest and most famous American universities, football coins money in four ways: at the gate, with radio-TV connections, with football-related donations to the athletic department, and with alumni gifts to the university itself--for the law school, perhaps, or a new science wing--gifts that wouldn’t have been made without the game’s ability to get the attention of students and former students.

“Football is the activity that binds the alumni to the university,” USC President Steven B. Sample said.

At, say, a homecoming game, what sometimes happens is that a well-heeled alumnus, returning 15 or 20 years after graduation, is gripped by nostalgia when he thinks back to how it was in his youth. Remembering that on a brilliant fall afternoon, he was sitting in these same stands, rooting for the team, he decides, on the spot, to give the business school that new building everyone has been talking to him about.

That helps explain why some schools cling to football as a fund-raiser even when it is a major loser at the gate.

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In the wider sports community, though, big-time college football can maintain its place these days only because, in the minds of most fans, it still holds its own with pro football and the many other forms of modern entertainment.

To stay up there, big 70 schools each need many scholarship players, 85 or 90. To some critics, 85 sounds much too generous for a game with 22 starters--but at times it isn’t enough. At times every college coach faces multiple player losses to injury, to academic problems, to the failure of some youngsters to develop and to other weird happenings, including recruiting mistakes and, often, waves of losses at one or two critical positions.

When a pro club loses three quarterbacks, it picks up a Bernie Kosar on waivers. When a college team loses three, it had better have more in uniform.

There’s no university waiver wire.

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BIG-TIME GAMBLERS

College football, to lose its following, might not have to slip much.

For, in search of entertainment, Americans today are an increasingly fickle bunch.

Amuse me, they say, or get lost.

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They are, at the moment, still fond of college football.

The ratings and size of the crowds suggest, more significantly, that they like it the way it is.

At the least, therefore, it would be a gamble for the universities to diminish the quality of the game.

To downsize football would be gambling with a multimillion-dollar good thing.

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And, for women’s sports, it would be an even bigger gamble.

College football is their support system.

University lawyers haven’t made that case, adequately, in the courts, where college women are rightly seeking financial equity.

Thus, the nation’s judges, without exception, are ruling that money rightly due female sports should be subtracted from all male sports, football included.

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That is an enormous error.

In an era of tight budgets, college football, which is vital to the economy of every large school, doesn’t belong in the mix with orthodox, money-losing sports.

When a sport can’t support itself and must be funded by the university, the only just gender division is 50-50--for female swimmers and male swimmers, say, or for female softball players and male baseball players.

But where sports earn money, legal activists and courts should stay out of it.

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MAKE IT BIGGER

If college football is heading for trouble today, financially, the explanation, in part, is that its leaders have been guilty of thinking small.

Judges, lawyers and college administrators all need to be reminded that, although things have changed a little lately, thinking big is what made this country what it is.

Downsizing, in the years when America was on top, was almost never the way we solved anything.

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We didn’t cut down. We looked up.

University leaders who have been going along with those aiming to weaken football should, instead, look for ways to build it up.

Many more millions of dollars could be harvested by college football teams in many possible ways, including these:

--Two-weekend preseason tournaments involving the most recent conference champions.

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--Midseason open dates allowing for instant scheduling to get more big intersectionals such as Notre Dame vs. Florida State last month.

--More conference championship games such as those in the Southeastern Conference.

--Interconference championship games.

--Two-weekend national championship playoffs after the bowl games.

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Any such events would clearly be of great interest to stadium fans and, more important, to television sponsors and viewers.

And the revenue so raised--revenue in the millions--should be divided roughly 72 ways, double shares to the participating teams each time, plus generous expenses.

In the minds of some, this is overemphasis.

But there are two good ways to still those fears.

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The players should get some of the revenue. And their education should be guaranteed with dedicated tutoring, particularly during postseason, out-of-town excursions.

For every four or five football players, let’s say, one tutor. They earn enough for that.

TWO KINDS OF TEAMS

Of the 1,286 U.S colleges and universities, only a few are large enough to consider designating football a fund-raising activity.

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Half of them don’t play the game. Of the 685 colleges that do, more than 600 are apparently losing a bit or a lot on football.

“There are no reliable surveys, but when you look at the size of their crowds, you know they’re not making money,” Bucknell President Gary A. Sojka said.

College football is played in six divisions in two associations, the NCAA and National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics. It is played by 123 colleges in the two NAIA divisions and by 456 in the lower three NCAA divisions.

These are the five minor leagues, where football crowds are generally modest.

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Even in the single major league--the NCAA’s Division I-A--25% of the 106 colleges and universities report annual football losses financially.

In all of college football, that leaves only the 70 or so universities where it is an important money maker, each of them in Division I-A.

And in the game’s two college worlds, the gender equity issue is vastly different and should be so perceived:

--The big 70 can support other sports with football revenues.

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--The schools in the marginal 600 can’t. And so, at those schools, the football teams should stand in line with all other sports that get administration support, men’s and women’s.

Where it costs money, in other words, there’s no more reason to subsidize men’s football than women’s volleyball or soccer or men’s lacrosse.

To save money, indeed, where football is subsidized, the schools would do well to follow Sojka’s advice:

“If we had roster limits of 55 instead of 100 or 110, football would be much less costly but just as competitive--and, I think, more interesting,” the Bucknell president said.

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A 55-player limit might mean one-platoon football, and if so, he’s in favor, Sojka added.

He is onto something there. The one-platoon game has a lot of merit for teams that lose money on football. In the entertainment league, their players don’t have the skills to compete with the pros anyway--which explains why they’re losing money in the first place.

At bigger universities, by contrast, one-platoon football would be counterproductive, leading to too many dull, low-scoring games on national TV and in the big stadiums. For, given a choice, one-platoon coaches will always leave their best defensive players on the field regardless of their offensive inadequacies.

The big 70 schools all have a national following. Among the other 600-plus, few compete on the national stage. They must look within to finance gender equity.

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Football’s 70 largest universities can look without. To fund women’s sports, they can tap into the pockets of sports fans numbering in the tens of millions across the country.

For the successful 70, in short, there is big money for women’s sports for those who will think big.


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