NCAA Reforms: Good for Female Athletes?

Need proof that the college sports structure was working well for female athletes? Look no further than Val Ackerman. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Val Ackerman is concerned. Nobody knows more about the benefits that the current collegiate sports system, however flawed, has created for women's athletes. The current Big East commissioner played basketball at Virginia before becoming the first commissioner of the WNBA.

She is everything that Title IX could have imagined for women.

She's had a front-row seat for the evolution of women's sports, as well as how money and legal decisions have changed the entire system of college athletics. Now, after another turbulent week for the NCAA, Ackerman is left asking the same thing thousands of former, current and future college athletes are wondering: What does it all mean for female athletes?

"These are the pressures bearing down on the system and what that will mean for sports other than football or men's basketball," Ackerman said. "There is a question: What happens to these other sports, women's and men's alike?"

Last week, the NCAA revised rules to give 65 big-conference schools more autonomy to provide their athletes with more scholarship money and medical care. On Friday, Judge Claudia Wilken ruled in favor of Ed O'Bannon and other plaintiffs in a suit against the NCAA over compensation for name and likeness.

The full implications of both decisions aren't yet known, but change is coming. And here's the scary thing: Nobody really knows what all that change will mean for college sports in general -- let alone women's sports.

Considering the revenue generated by the richest conferences and teams -- the average Big Ten team can earn $20 million a year from its television rights, according to an amicus brief filed by a group of economists in support of Northwestern players' bid to unionize -- these changes are long overdue. Refusing to pay athletes who generate millions for their schools is an affront to basic fairness, as Wilken decreed in the O'Bannon case. Dismantling that architecture, however, will likely upend a system that has worked very well for female athletes.

So what is the future of women's sports under this new structure?

It depends heavily on what the big schools do. The NCAA's stipend rule and the O'Bannon ruling both concede increased power to the biggest sports schools in the five major conferences, the ones who provide the talent (read: players) and staging (read: monster stadiums and arenas) that generate billions in TV revenue.

"A lot of it is going to depend on what the power elite is going to do with the autonomy they have," said Ellen Staurowsky, a sports business professor at Drexel University.

The answer isn't yet apparent and probably won't be for a long time. Staurowsky noted that the gains women made in college sports were never granted by the schools themselves, but because of the requirements of Title IX, which was passed in 1973. There is concern that schools won't comply going forward.

"I think that's a legitimate concern," said Judy Sweet, co-founder of the Alliance of Women Coaches and former athletics director at the University of California, San Diego. "I just think that we're in such a new environment with college athletics that isn't necessarily healthy for other (non-revenue generating) sports."

That means that the burden could fall on colleges and athletic departments to keep lower-profile (read: non-revenue generating) sports simply because it's the right thing to do.

In other words: Don't hold your breath, girls.

The reality is, even as a heavily subsidized de facto capitalism devoured amateurism in men's sports, the college sports structure worked well for women.

"The system isn't perfect, but it's as close to the collegiate ideal as you could find," Ackerman said. "It best epitomizes the value proposition of the NCAA: The idea that a student can go to a university, get a quality education, come out debt-free -- it's not a small thing. It's troubling that story isn't being told."

Even recently, economist Andrew Schwarz notes, Title IX has been treated like an annoying impediment in some quarters of athletics. But this brave new world could mean female athletes get more value from their scholarships. Part of the Wilken decision acknowledges a dirty little secret -- a "full ride" isn't really full at all, with female athletes having only 54 percent of their education paid for. Even for FBS stars, a grant-in-aid typically did not cover their entire education. "To comply with the law, schools will have to fund women's athletics more," Schwarz said.

In order to keep the appearance of equity, big schools could turn more partial women's scholarships into full scholarships, and due to the Wilken decision, they can't be artificially capped at an amount less than the true cost of a year at school.

In her ruling, Wilken allowed for the possibility of a fund to pay players for their names and likenesses after their eligibility ends. With so many conference networks springing up to televise their own sports, that fund could be open to athletes on women's teams as well, Schwarz said.

Bruce Svare, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Albany and author of Reforming Sports Before the Clock Runs Out, said the current sports system is pretty far away from the ideals -- real or mythical -- that underpinned how athletics fit into the university system.

"The Title IX issues are obvious," Svare wrote in an email. "Any new compensation package (financial aid) for D1 basketball and football also must occur for all sports (men's and women's). To do so otherwise risks immediate lawsuits."

Spending would have to increase for both men's and women's sports, and those schools that can't afford it may have to decide if the expense of a mid-range sports program is worth it.

At some schools, non-revenue sports were supported by the money brought in by the football or men's basketball teams. Because of Title IX, women's sports weren't gutted in the BCS arms race.

"I will say Title IX has really made so much of this possible because without that that, these opportunities wouldn't be there," Ackerman said. "The revenues that these [women's] sports are generating on their own, these are not self-sustaining. Even the sports that generate revenue aren't making money. I put women's basketball in that category. It generates some revenue, but it's not covering its costs. But because of Title IX, it gets to happen, and it gets to happen at a certain level."

As economist Schwarz points out, Title IX doesn't mandate equal funding for men's and women's programs, or else many schools would be in violation. A bigger aim is to allow for as much proportionate participation as there is interest. In other words, as long as women have as many opportunities as they need, the dollar amount isn't as important.

(Contrary to popular belief, schools do not have to spend equal amounts of money. In fact, one recent study showed the average expenditures at FBS schools are around $20 million for men's sports, more than twice as much as they spend on women's programs.)

Title IX has been under near-constant attack, but in the meantime, it has allowed thousands of women to get undergraduate degrees while wearing a school jersey, and at a higher rate than men.

There is some evidence, including a comprehensive study from Ernst & Young, that women who play sports have gone on to populate American boardrooms and smash glass ceilings.

"You talk to a Fortune 500 woman and you say, 'Did you play sports in college?' chances are pretty good she did," Ackerman said. "It's not just a cliché that it trains you for life."

The recent NCAA rules won't mean these gains disappear, but women's sports seem to be an afterthought in a capitalist sports future. Will women's sports at BCS schools be expected to turn a profit? Do television ratings factor into scholarship amounts?

Svare and Schwarz look down the road and see a two-tiered system, big sports-driven universities competing for students with smaller, more academically-focused institutions.

And that may happen sooner rather than later. Now that the NCAA has offered concessions to the major conferences, the door is open. These changes are the beginning -- but there are other suits coming.

So back to women's sports. The push for reform has never been about women. That's because women's sports have stayed truer to the old collegiate sports ideal: athletics as an educational tool, rather than a platform for ticket sales, TV contracts and cash. Title IX is a buffer against the market forces that would focus only on revenue generation. The best hope for the great majority of female athletes who play in college is that the future offers a little more money and higher profile -- but the same opportunity to play.