How UNH Has Embraced Equity in College Athletics

By Zack Leach | The Monitor

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In an era where pessimism runs rampant, perhaps no sports topic is viewed with more disproportionate negativity than Title IX, a 44-year-old law that simply sought to achieve gender equality in education. While it is true the law has had a widespread effect on the landscape of college athletics, the analysis of its effects is so skewed toward criticism that it has almost become a pejorative term.

One of Title IX’s biggest success stories, however, is the University of New Hampshire. The state’s flagship school has embraced the law as it pertains to college athletics, implementing it to empower female athletes without hurting their male counterparts or the bottom line.

Leading the charge is Michelle Bronner, now in her sixth year as the school’s senior associate athletic director for compliance & student services/senior woman administrator. In her compliance capacity, Bronner is responsible for the administration of all athletic scholarships, as well as NCAA student assistance funds, and the determination of eligibility for more than 500 UNH student-athletes. She is also in charge of Title IX compliance and handling any gender equity issues.

“In the time that I have been here, I have never received a Title IX complaint,” Bronner says.

Making this fact all the more impressive is that, in relation to other New Hampshire schools, the Wildcats are in a league of their own. UNH is one of just two Division I schools in New Hampshire and the only one that gives out athletics scholarships (as an Ivy League school, Dartmouth does not). Colby-Sawyer, Daniel Webster, Keene State, New England College, Plymouth State, Rivier and soon St. Anselm are Division III schools and don’t have athletic scholarships at all. Franklin Pierce and Southern New Hampshire University do give out athletics scholarships, though they are limited being at the Division II level.

“I think that things are very different at Division II and Division III,” Bronner agreed, “because at Division I (with athletic scholarships) there is more of a need to chase the dollar.”

This usually muddies the water at many big-time D-I athletic schools, where there is often no clear line between complying with Title IX and trying to find loopholes in the law to maximize revenue. UNH has managed to keep to the letter of the law, despite being the most desirable in-state destination for the best of New Hampshire’s young athletes.

The fine print

Title IX was signed into law on June 23, 1972 by President Richard Nixon. The statute prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in the context of education. It states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity.”

Title IX has caused much debate over the years and it has become most polarizing as it pertains to college athletics. The federal government supplies aid to colleges and universities, who in turn supply aid to their student-athletes and fund their athletic departments. Thus, schools must operate their athletic programs in a nondiscriminatory manner.

It seems logical on the surface. Why shouldn’t female and male athletes be treated equally? This becomes much more complicated when taking into account the revenues that men’s sports create versus women’s sports, not to mention the overall interest and participation differences between male and female students and fans alike.

Less than two years after Title IX was enacted, it faced its first formal opposition. The “Tower Amendment” fought to remove revenue-producing sports from the equation altogether. This of course would mean that the larger men’s sports – football, basketball and hockey – would not be considered when determining Title IX compliance. The “Tower Amendment” was promptly rejected. The loophole it would have created would have made the law toothless.

Only a few years later, another bill was proposed that would mandate that revenues from a sport would first be used to offset the costs of that sport, with only the remainder going to the rest of the athletic department. The effects of this would again be that popular men’s sports would be prioritized and essentially self-sustaining, leaving many women’s teams without the necessary coverage and diminishing the ability of Title IX to properly enforce gender equity.

“College athletics is not self-sustaining,” Bronner says. “However, the revenue that they do generate is a significant portion of the budget (for the athletic department).”

At UNH, this would mean that the ticket revenue for hockey, which accounts for over $2 million annually, and the ticket revenue for football (about $1 million), would first fill any and all needs of those two teams, and only afterward would be put toward remaining men’s sports and all women’s sports, all of which produce nowhere near that much revenue individually.

In 1980, the U.S. Department of Education created the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which was tasked, among other things, with investigating, evaluating and helping to resolve Title IX issues on college campuses. Much of their focus is directed towards athletics. Working together with the NCAA, the OCR keeps an eye on schools and makes sure that steps are always being taken to remain compliant with Title IX. It is very much a balancing act for these schools. The NCAA defines Title IX compliance as being “assessed through a total program comparison. In other words, the entire men’s program is compared to the entire women’s program, not just one men’s team to the women’s team in the same sport.”

Rather than mandating that the same amount of resources be put towards each individual athletic team, schools must only ensure that there is a balance between men’s and women’s sports. The only exception to this rule is a provision allowing for the difference in equipment value, since the necessary materials for sports like football, hockey, and lacrosse are quite different from other like basketball and track and field.

The club option

There are three prongs under which a school can be Title IX compliant: 1) proportionality, 2) a history of adding sports, and 3) interest. Schools almost always use proportionality to measure compliance. Interest, however, is extremely difficult to show.

Bronner recalls early attempts to show interest by sending surveys to all students regarding their interest in playing college sports and schools were instructed to consider a non-answer as no interest. This was surely a flawed process. And ironically, prong two, a history of adding sports, has all but been rendered moot by Title IX itself.

There is no denying that, around the country, Title IX has had the unintended effect of cutting men’s sports programs at colleges and universities. Requiring schools to have participation and athletic scholarship counts proportionate to its overall enrollment led many to cut men’s sports, limiting the athletic opportunities of their male students so as to amplify the participation of their female students in their current women’s programs. Almost all NCAA schools now have a history of cutting sports, rather than the more positive alternative.

Even UNH had to cut sports at one time. In the late 1990s, many sports were no longer offered in Durham in an effort to better allocate resources and balance out their athletic commitments. Perhaps the most difficult casualty was the baseball program. The sweeping changes left the school with only two spring sports: women’s lacrosse and track and field.

However, what separates UNH from the majority of schools was its reasoning behind the cuts. While the default for many schools was to cut small men’s programs to create a perceived boost in the female fraction of participation, UNH administrators made decisions based on the financial stability of their programs. Both men’s and women’s teams were cut, either because of their high costs or their low revenues, but not simply in a desperate attempt to comply with Title IX.

Baseball provides the greatest example of a strategic cut. The program lacked an adequate indoor training facility on campus. The team also had to travel south to prepare for the season throughout February and March at great expense to the school. Rather than add to those expenses with a new baseball facility and severely overload the men’s side of the athletic resources scale, the school instead cut baseball. It was a decision that assisted with Title IX compliance and also proved fiscally sound.

Sam Gagnon, a former high school baseball star who has struggled with injuries, said that, as a fan, UNH’s lack of varsity baseball did not affect his decision to attend the school. But as a player, the presence of a strong club program certainly did. The club team at UNH has developed quite the winning reputation. UNH club baseball participates in three local club leagues each year, and in the last five years has won a total of seven league championships.

So where UNH lost a varsity program, a replacement has grown in its place at the club level. While Gagnon understands the decision to cut baseball, he does feel that UNH is unaware of how fortunate it is to still have a successful baseball program that costs very little and acts as a Title IX loophole.

“We win…a lot,” Gagnon, a four-year club player and current assistant coach, said. “And recognition (would be) huge for some guys.”

UNH has the opportunity to provide more support to club baseball, both financial and promotional, which would help to recruit for the team and potentially move them to a better league with stronger competition. Without any accounting for Title IX because it is at the club level, UNH has the chance to keep baseball alive and thriving in Durham.

“You look at club baseball nationwide, and it’s huge,” Gagnon said.

The power of promotion

In recent years, UNH has continued to maintain its athletic proportionality by adding new women’s sports rather than cutting men’s sports. Currently UNH has 18 varsity sports, 11 women’s teams and seven men’s teams. With an undergraduate enrollment of 12,840 students that was 54.2 percent women and 45.8 percent men, the athletic program broke down at approximately 53 percent women and 47 percent men.

UNH also engages in a clever system of “roster management,” which allows it to offer sports like cross country, track and field and skiing to both genders, but can cap the amount of scholarships on the men’s side, while offering the maximum amount of scholarships on the women’s side. This allows opportunities for men to continue while also providing women even more opportunity to participate.

“Title IX has gotten a bad rep over the last few years because men’s Olympic sports are being cut,” Bronner says, “but if you look at those schools that are cutting men’s Olympic sports, they also tend to have football.”

Bronner went on to say that she believes that it is “unfair to blame all of (the men’s programs being cut) on Title IX. It’s fairer to look at the administrations and say ‘what are you valuing?’ and ‘how are you choosing how to allocate your resources?’ ”

Football is popular at UNH, so even though it is an expensive program, requiring greater funds than any other team due to equipment and facility necessities, it makes more sense to keep the program due to the fan support. Like many schools in the northeast, UNH draws most of its athletic revenue from men’s hockey, grossing close to $2.5 million in revenue each season.

“Football games (are) huge … hockey games (are) overwhelming … and men’s basketball has increased in popularity as well,” said Gagnon, an avid UNH sports fan.

Title IX does not mandate schools take away resources from these sports, but only that the total amount spent on men’s teams be proportionate to the total amount spent on women’s teams.

“We try to put the most into (hockey and football)” Bronner says, “but not at the expense of our other programs … (and) not without keeping the balance between the men’s and women’s programs in mind.”

The power of promotion

UNH not only counteracts the participation in its popular men’s sports with additional women’s teams, it also helps to offset the costs of those additional teams with thoughtful marketing. As a result of putting just as much effort into advertising their women’s and men’s teams and taking careful steps to identify and target the appropriate fan groups, UNH women’s programs such as the gymnastics team can excel.

“Our gymnastics crowds are fantastic. It is a little bit of (a) niche, but there is a strong following,” said Bronner, glowing about the school’s top-grossing women’s sport.

Bronner pointed out that nationally there are several non-basketball women’s programs in the top 10 in NCAA women’s athletics attendance. Even women’s basketball, which is widely regarded as the biggest women’s sport at the college level, could be marketed better. Bronner suggests that too many colleges and universities try to increase their women’s basketball revenue by pushing it on their men’s basketball fans, when really there are fundamental differences, and marketing efforts for women’s basketball may be better served by targeting families and younger girls.

Another attendance success on the women’s side is women’s lacrosse, the lone team sport offered by UNH in the spring.

“The women’s games that are most attended are lacrosse,” Gagnon said.

Though it may be a function of being the only real spectator sport during that season, this makes it no less important to the students and other fans as a women’s program that sticks out for its high attendance. While Gagnon and many others understand that there will always be a difference between men’s and women’s sports, acknowledging that the attendance of men’s hockey versus women’s hockey is “astounding,” it’s fans like Gagnon who understand that women’s sports deserve their support too that will change the landscape of women’s athletics.

“I like Title IX because I feel females should be given every opportunity males do,” Gagnon said.

Daily budget

Bronner and UNH implement their thoughtful Title IX analysis not just in proportional participation and program selection and marketing, but also in their day-to-day expenditures of the NCAA Student Assistance Fund.

“We’re pretty selective with how we spend on our athletes” Bronner said. “We do a pretty good job using the…money to help people as needed, rather than generalized payments.”

For every dollar spent on a male athlete, there has to be accounting on the other side under Title IX. This means even modest decisions matters. Prioritizing important needs makes this an easier and more responsible process than simply handing out money to one side and then the other.

“Let’s get these (hockey players) from Canada a plane ticket home for Christmas…or when these basketball players come up from Texas, we can say ‘hey, let’s get you a good coat and good boots,’” Bronner says.

Similarly, equitable access between the men’s and women’s teams is often taken into account when distributing funds as well. Rather than counter each payment to a male athlete with the same for a female athlete (say a plane ticket for a plane ticket), Bronner often prefers to save up to help the female athletes stay on an even playing field with the men.

One such example is paying for summer classes for women’s basketball players so that they can practice all summer like the men’s team, which pays off their summer bills with the ticket revenue from just one game. Even if full cost-of-attendance payment were to be approved by the NCAA, UNH would have an advantage. Many big Division I schools would likely use these payments on their football players. Bronner believes that men’s and women’s hockey would instead be her focus, as both programs would like to return to their peak national status, and thus UNH would succeed yet again at being both balanced and beneficial.

The consequences

Despite their best efforts, many schools wind up in trouble and receive a plethora of complaints every year. Whether it is the result of an NCAA investigation or an official complaint filed through the OCR or, in the worst case scenario, a lawsuit, many colleges and universities must face the music when they fail to comply with Title IX. Often this can be as easy as implementing a corrective process to get back on track, which schools are usually given a grace period to achieve, but sometimes deep investigations uncover egregious errors and oversights that take much more to fix.

UNH has been fortunate enough to avoid any such mistakes, at least in Bronner’s tenure. This was not always the case though. In the ‘90’s things were much different – there were separate men’s and women’s athletics departments, there was hesitation and confusion with new Title IX changes and regulations, and, eventually, there was even an OCR investigation on campus. The school was fortunate enough to escape examination without any further sanctions, but the investigation alerted administrators to the changes needed, and the school has taken great strides since then and Bronner has yet to see a Title IX complaint come across her desk, despite the fact that it’s easy to file a grievance.

A Title IX complaint can be filed on the Department of Education website in five minutes. There is also a Title IX officer on every college campus who handles all educational gender inequality issues. Bronner has never heard a bad word about UNH athletics from its agent. The athletic department has done an impeccable job of staying out of trouble, and most of that is due to being proactive. In 2011, when Bronner first took over, the school hired a former OCR agent to do an analysis of the athletic department and assist with protocol going forward.

“That gave me, starting off here, a pretty good idea of where we were, what issues we might have, and what we could do about it” Bronner said.

With that information in hand, Bronner implemented a system of educating coaches, staff, and student-athletes on Title IX and the rules of compliance and then gets feedback at the end of each year with student-athlete surveys that inquire as to whether teams felt they were treated fairly, marketed equitably and provided the same quality of facilities and equipment as other teams. Bronner can then use this data to solve problems before they ever occur.

In addition to understanding the athletes at UNH, another key to compliance for Bronner is being vigilant all year long as to the ongoing changes with the athletes. Keeping an eye on walk-on numbers (which tend to be greatly skewed towards men’s teams), commitments and de-commitments, and even athletes who drop out are all integral to maintain the balance mandated by Title IX.

‘Equity over equality’

Even for an athletic department like UNH, which appears to comply with Title IX so seamlessly, there are always questions by female athletes about equality. Bronner finds that simply addressing the reality of college sports and athletics is all that is needed to answer these questions. The biggest issue brought up by Title IX supporters and critics alike is that equality between men’s and women’s sports is not or will not be achieved. Understanding that this is not the problem is what is important.

“It’s equity over equality” Bronner said. “Let’s make sure that we’re fair and that were not making decisions for one gender at the expense of another.”

The ideal that sports fans will treat men’s and women’s athletics the same way is not cemented in reality, and certainly cannot be the responsibility of any college or university to try to achieve. Providing each gender with the opportunity to participate and be active is instead what Title IX is all about.

“The reality is the treatment on the national level is just never going to be the same,” Bronner said. “We’re a long way off from equal treatment (between men’s and women’s sports) and that’s okay, as long as we continue to make the effort to promote women’s sports and keep providing the opportunities.”

As long as all participants are being treated equitably, the resulting fan bases for those sports are really irrelevant. Bronner summed it up by saying that, “where people start to lose focus with Title IX is thinking that you have to go sport for sport. There will never be a women’s collegiate sport that will get as much money and attention as football. But by providing a few more women’s sports where the athletes are being treated in a comparable way to your football players, you can easily offset it that way.”

To those who still say that Title IX has not done its job in supporting female athletes, Bronner said to just look outside the NCAA, at youth sports and pro sports.

“It’s the trickle-down effect,” she said. “You see more and more girls having avenues to get into athletics at younger ages. I think the overall health benefits to more women being involved in sports are fantastic.”

While male college students are more likely to play intramural sports (74 percent of total participants), club sports, or even just pick-up games, expanded opportunities for women to dedicate themselves to real varsity collegiate sports gets them active at an early age and keeps them active. It is also starting to develop a wider range of possibilities at the professional level. The WNBA is celebrating its 20th anniversary and new women’s pro leagues have emerged in both hockey and soccer in just the last year. It seems as though athletic participation by females of all ages has never been better, and it is impossible to ignore the effect that 44 years of Title IX has had on those changes.

The future

Although the positive developments of Title IX are apparent, the future is still unclear for this important statute. There will always be those who say it does too much damage to men’s athletics, or that it is unsustainable. These are valid arguments.

Title IX does indeed make it tough on many men’s sports, especially at schools that continue to try to remedy their Title IX problems by cutting men’s programs. Even a school like UNH would struggle to add a men’s program to its current slate of athletics. Bronner would like to see men’s lacrosse in Durham, as it has a strong market in the northeast and is a sport that is growing in popularity, but doubts that the Title IX logistics would support such an addition, unless a comparable women’s sport could be found.

The proportionality criterion also continues to be difficult to meet as enrollment number skew more and more towards women.

“If you look across the nation, the trend is that more women are going to college than men, and that will always present a problem with proportionality,” Bronner said.

Could a 50/50 split be the solution? Could a Title IX challenge to overall academic enrollment be on the horizon? Bronner said that, “Football is the outlier – it makes (compliance) a much more difficult task” and that it may someday be excluded from Title IX calculations. Is it fair to treat football separately? Is there a hybrid system in the works that could pay football players while maintaining athletic gender balance

The future of college athletics is certainly a mystery, and the role of Title IX in the ever-changing landscape remains a vital factor. Rather than reverting to the pessimism that surrounds this controversial law, it seems more productive to embrace and understand its importance, both in athletics and in all aspects of education. Using a school like the University of New Hampshire as a guide, other institutions can continue to work toward a bright future for college sports; a future where equality is not seen as a hindrance to growth or a frustrating logistical problem, but as a beacon of hope for student-athletes around the country and a sign of success for inclusion and equity in the NCAA.