The silent enemy of men's sports

Wondering why there's less room for non-revenue men's sports? Check the sidelines at a college football game. AP Photo/Tom Hauck

LSU baseball is a perennial powerhouse, with six national championships since 1991. But the Tigers find it increasingly difficult to recruit. Although the school awards 85 football scholarships -- in some years committing to more athletes than it can actually accommodate, like an airline overbooking passengers -- LSU divides just 11.7 scholarships among its baseball players.

Every year, head coach Paul Mainieri scurries around the country to offer preps a fraction of a free ride. So it's not surprising to hear that he would like more scholarships. "I don't know that I've ever had a player receive a scholarship in the amount which was commensurate to his value," he recently told the LSU student newspaper, The Daily Reveille. "It's sad, really, that college baseball is treated that way."

Skip Bertman, who coached baseball at LSU from 1984 to 2001, then built the school into a sports powerhouse as athletic director from 2001-08, believes he knows where to put the blame. "I think," Bertman said in March, "baseball is pretty much a victim of Title IX."

Surveys consistently show that Americans overwhelmingly approve of the purpose, enforcement and impact of Title IX. But the approval often comes with an undercurrent of resentment: Many supporters of men's sports harbor the bitter conviction that Title IX is killing their teams, and that only political correctness prevents the world from acknowledging it. A blogger named Eric McErlain echoed those voices in an opinion piece he wrote for The Daily Caller, a website focused mainly on breaking news and political commentary. "Why," he asks, "is ESPN ignoring the damage caused by Title IX?"

We'll answer that one: Because, Eric, Title IX is not the problem.

Colleges have indeed axed hundreds of men's teams in the Title IX era, often while explicitly scapegoating the law. And although courts have firmly rejected the argument that Title IX discriminates against men, the frustration of men's sports advocates is somewhat understandable. They've watched too many top men's programs die -- including baseball at Providence, gymnastics at Iowa State and swimming at UCLA -- while schools have rushed to provide new opportunities to women in sports such as rowing, soccer and volleyball.

But if you leave preconceptions aside and just look at the data, you will find that the real enemy of men's sports isn't Title IX. It's NCAA scholarship limits.

Universities can comply with Title IX by showing they are meeting the athletic interests and abilities of their male and female students, but the law says nothing about how they meet that demand.

Taking it to the limit

These are how many scholarships (full and partial) that an FBS college can offer.

* Schools that don't offer traditional volleyball teams are allowed eight scholarships for sand volleyball.

Source: 2011-12 NCAA Division I Manual

That's the NCAA's turf.

Article of the NCAA Division I bylaws states: "There shall be a limit on the value of financial aid awards that an institution may provide in any academic year to counters in the following … sports."

It then goes on to detail, without explanation, precisely how many scholarships an FBS college can offer. The maximum allotment, for 23 different sports, is detailed in the chart on the right.

Some sports, such as football or women's gymnastics, are "head count" sports, meaning every athlete who gets aid receives a full scholarship. Others, such as men's soccer or wrestling, are "equivalency" sports, meaning a coach can divvy up the allotment into partial scholarships, as long as the total of all offers doesn't exceed the limit.

For some equivalency sports, there are also limits on the number of players who can get any fraction of a scholarship -- also known as "counters." Baseball teams, for example, can have a maximum of 27 counters; women's ice hockey teams can have 30.

Of course, all teams can have non-scholarship walk-ons, too, but scholarships are the currency of the recruiting realm, and the list to the right determines how they must be distributed.

And, to repeat, Title IX didn't create that list. The NCAA did.

Although scholarship limits came into effect around the same time as Title IX, in the mid-1970s, that's a coincidence. Back then, the NCAA was concerned that major football programs were hoarding players by giving them financial aid.

Pittsburgh coach Johnny Majors reportedly gave scholarships to 90 freshmen in 1973, a move that came under scrutiny when the Panthers won the national championship in 1977. In response, the NCAA tried to ensure some equity of competition within particular sports.

But how does the NCAA allocate scholarships across sports? On the men's side, the answer is clear once you pit the limits against the number of athletes it takes to fill a sport's roster.

The chart titled "Follow the money" (below right) shows the results for men's sports with set starting lineups, adjusted for the minimum number of players it takes to field a team.

Follow the money

The number of starting lineups funded by scholarships in men's sports varies drastically, depending on revenues.

Source: 2011-12 NCAA Division I Manual

Put simply, scholarship limits protect and promote revenue sports. The NCAA allows individual schools to fund specific men's sports only to the degree that those sports make money nationally. That means LSU -- or any other school -- can't give out more than 11.7 baseball scholarships, even if it were willing to shift grants from its basketball or football or golf teams.

The NCAA admits that, for some time now, its scholarship rules have been geared toward generating money. "For men's sports in Division I, the NCAA membership determined in 1974 to separate football and basketball financial aid from other sports," says spokesman Cameron Schuh. "This move was predicated on the ability of those sports at that time to generate revenue for the institutions as compared to the other sports the institutions fielded."

That's as much as the NCAA would explain, though, about anything related to its scholarship policies. We do know that the NCAA has fiddled with the limits over the years, occasionally reducing the overall number to cut costs in hard times. But at most schools, you still have to get to the fourth-string tight end or the third-string point guard before you find a player who's not getting a full ride in football or basketball, while soccer coaches can't even field a starting lineup of scholarship athletes.

And that's a dangerous model. "In the long run, the NCAA won't be able to fulfill its mission of helping all student-athletes if it continues to favor the richest sports," says Ellen Zavian, a professor of sports law at George Washington University. "But when it comes to scholarship limits, those sports that generate the most money have spoken the loudest. The big gap now is not between men's and women's sports, but between sports that generate high revenues and those that don't."

The NCAA began regulating women's scholarships in 1982. Since then, according to Schuh, it has tried to match limits to participation rates. But today's scholarship limits bear no recognizable relationship to female athletes' need for financial aid.

Suppose we take participation in high school as a proxy for how popular certain sports are among young athletes, and how many players will pursue those sports in college. For every 100,000 high school volleyball players, the NCAA allows colleges to offer fewer than three scholarships, while the comparable figure for women's crew is more than 900. The full list is in the chart below.

No rhyme or reason

The allocation of women's scholarships bears little relation to the popularity
of various sports.

Source: National Federation of State High School Associations,
2010-11 High School Athletics Participation Survey.

Note: The survey didn't track female rugby or sand volleyball athletes.

Here again, the NCAA protects the highest-revenue sport: Women's basketball teams can stock a full roster with scholarship athletes. But overall, these ratios make little sense. Why must a university offer fewer scholarships to softball players than equestrians? Why can't it give more to soccer players than swimmers?

Even worse, by handing down artificially high scholarship limits for sports such as ice hockey and rugby, the NCAA is telling schools they can comply with Title IX by herding athletes onto those teams. That's not just frustrating to men who don't play football; it's unfair to women competing in more popular sports. And it undermines Title IX by making compliance with the law seem ludicrous.

Opponents of Title IX routinely mock the emergence of women's rowing and sand volleyball programs, as if they're required by federal mandates. But those voices never mention that NCAA rules, not Title IX, forbid colleges from giving more scholarships to cross country runners and softball players.

The truth is, it will never be possible for the NCAA to allot scholarships efficiently with top-down edicts. Over time, some sports will surge in popularity while others will fade, and any bureaucracy as centralized as the NCAA will struggle to keep up. Plus, one size doesn't fit all. Different schools have different cultures and traditions, so why should the NCAA impose the same model on everyone?

Instead, the NCAA could aid both women's and men's sports with one simple move: cast off these sport-specific scholarship limits and let schools decide for themselves how best to allocate their resources.

If St. John's, where two men earned national titles in fencing last year, wants to build on that success by offering seven full fencing scholarships instead of fractions adding up to the 4.5 limit, the school should be allowed to do just that. If Purdue wants to extend its tradition of excellence in women's golf by providing full rides to 12 women instead of six, tell the Boilermakers to go for it. In women's track and field, Oregon has been the national runner-up to Texas A&M for the past three years. So if the Oregon administration thinks the school would serve its student-athletes better by giving extra scholarships to runners instead of recruiting more rowers, why not give the Ducks the green light and see what the Aggies do to respond?

This change would instantly make athletic directors more accountable. As things stand now, it's easy for programs to blame absurdities in their priorities on factors beyond their control, including Title IX. But take away the sport-specific limits, and give each school the total number of scholarships (about 225 apiece for men and women) to hand out as they see fit, and athletic directors would have to justify the choices they make.

At the same time, reallocation would let schools compete for the surging number of women who play soccer and volleyball, rather than hunting for phantom hockey and rugby players. And the overall cost would be approximately nothing -- because, at any school, one scholarship is worth the same amount, no matter who receives it.

Of course, some schools might very well pour even more money into football. But they'd be doing themselves a disservice. Only 69 FBS teams turned a profit last year. The typical FBS athletic department, though, lost $9.4 million in 2010, and that figure was higher than for FCS colleges ($9.2 million), which in turn was higher than for Division I schools that don't offer football ($8.6 million). Yes, football leads to bigger revenues. It also leads to bigger expenses.

So here's another idea: The NCAA could let schools allocate scholarships within certain ranges for each sport. The minimum would guarantee high-quality competition, and the maximum would make sure schools don't turn into single-sport factories. These limits could be pegged to the standard size of teams, for example, allowing for one to three starting lineups of scholarship players per sport: 5-15 players for basketball, 9-27 for baseball and softball, 22-66 for football, and so forth. This approach would also give schools much more latitude while protecting other sports from football's grasp.

Sure, football coaches would complain; they usually do when the subject turns to scholarship limits. But the fact is, Alabama used an average of 59 players per game last season on the way to winning the BCS crown, even though the average Division I football team kept 111 players, including walk-ons, in 2009-10.

So how does any coach justify that disparity? "They always find a way," says Bill Cords, former athletic director at Marquette and the University of Texas at El Paso. "Whether it's stadiums, facilities, academic support systems, fitness centers, coaches -- football schools spend money like the government."

Finally, there's this: Offering non-revenue sports more scholarships may be the only way to amplify their voices in the ongoing debates over how to reform college athletics.

Last year, an NCAA subcommittee -- the Resource Allocation Working Group -- floated the idea of reducing FBS scholarship limits from 85 to 80, arguing that the move would "allow for athletic talent to be dispersed among more intercollegiate athletics programs." This past January, though, the NCAA board of directors rejected the proposal after football coaches widely criticized it.

Even if the NCAA had adopted the measure, it's hard to see how cutting back the scholarships available to one or a few programs would be enough to empower other sports, as opposed to a full-scale redistribution of scholarships.

Cartels succeed because they can control supply. Cartels fail because they don't respond well to changes in demand. The NCAA, a classic cartel, says that because Texas and Ohio State make a lot of money on football, Vanderbilt can't offer extra scholarships to baseball players. And because the NCAA arbitrarily assigned scholarship limits for each sport, in an attempt to make the numbers for women approximately equal to those for men, Vandy can't offer extra scholarships to softball players, either.

If the Commodores could allocate resources according to their own athletic goals, we would see whether Vanderbilt cares enough about baseball and softball to fund the best athletes, or if the school has other priorities. We would also soon find out the same about Vandy's rivals.

That's called competition. And it's about time the NCAA rulebook encouraged more of it.