One morning in April, a group of commissioners, college presidents and athletics directors filed into a La Jolla, California, hotel conference room, squeezed around a rectangular table and prepared to resume a conversation that many felt had gone quiet over the last 22 years. They composed a task force that had a lot of ground to make up and only a day to get started. Yet before calling the meeting to order, the task force co-chair noticed something that needed tending to.
With that, the group began the first meeting of an NCAA Gender Equity Task Force since 1993. The new group of 11 men and women will collaborate with the NCAA’s Committee on Women’s Athletics and provide periodic updates to the NCAA Board of Governors, as well as the top committees for all three divisions. While they are still shaping their processes and ironing out details, the task force’s mission is clear: Move the needle on gender equity in college sports. “We want you at the table,” Jeff Orleans said, beckoning to a couple of female onlookers in attendance who, realizing space was limited, had settled in the back along the wall. The male and female administrators at the conference table shuffled their papers and slid their chairs to fit in every voice. “That’s important,” Orleans added firmly before turning his attention to the agenda.
Co-chairs Judy Sweet, a former membership-elected president of the NCAA, a former NCAA senior vice president for championships and a longtime athletics director, and Orleans, a former executive director of the Ivy League, are well-known leaders in this space. Both sat on the original Gender Equity Task Force that last met in 1993. Among that group’s successes: the creation of the NCAA’s emerging sports for women program; increased financial aid opportunities for women; and an addition to the NCAA constitution stating the responsibilities of all member schools to be gender equitable.
“We saw some progress as a result of the task force’s recommendations,” Sweet said. But when the group finished its work and the task force stopped meeting, progress slowed. “In the 2000s, nothing happened.”
In 2012, former Illinois College associate professor Amy Wilson – now the NCAA director of gender inclusion – issued a report on the status of women in college athletics. The report, commissioned by the Committee on Women’s Athletics, found significant gaps between men and women in participation opportunities, allocation of resources and leadership positions in college athletics departments. Wilson reported that over the last decade, for the first time since Title IX passed, athletics participation numbers are increasing faster for males in high school and college than for females. Only 40 percent of the head coaches in women’s sports and only 20 percent of athletics directors were women.
The report was all Sweet needed to reaffirm that something needed to be done. So in January 2014, members of the original task force gathered with others who eventually became members of the new task force to devise a plan. They recommended the NCAA establish an ongoing task force to serve as an advisory group and to dig deeper into some of the broader issues. Last fall, the NCAA Executive Committee – now the Board of Governors – approved the task force’s charter, making possible the meeting that took place April 23.
“The challenge is, there’s so much that could possibly be done,” Orleans told the group in La Jolla, which was meeting alongside the NCAA Inclusion Forum. “What do we think is most important, and how are we going to achieve that?”
The movement in Division I toward cost-of-attendance scholarships quickly rose to the forefront of discussion. Task force members expressed concerns that schools might respond to financial challenges by dropping female sports or reducing financial aid for women. If schools are talking about cost-of-attendance scholarships, they said, Title IX needs to be a part of the conversation.
The brainstorming continued. The group identified as a priority the low numbers of women coaches and athletics administrators. They could work on educating the people who make hiring decisions, one person at the table suggested. They could outline the data in a one-page document to get members thinking, another offered.
Hold a think tank. Write a letter. Share best practices. There was no shortage of ideas from members at the inaugural meeting. Task force member Jacqie McWilliams, commissioner of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, said she recognized “great value” in being a part of a group advocating for gender equity. “This group is experienced, sensitive and thoughtful,” McWilliams said. “I am confident we will provide leadership, directives and strategies to support the ongoing efforts and concerns surrounding equitable opportunities.”
The Gender Equity Task Force will next meet in September in Indianapolis, where it will focus its priorities and identify next steps. As an advisory group, the task force cannot propose legislation, so it will work closely with the Committee on Women’s Athletics to make formal recommendations within the NCAA governance structure.
“Our hope,” Sweet said, “is that we can again move the needle.”
2015 Gender Equity Task Force:
Jeff Orleans, co-chair: Former executive director of the Council of Ivy Group Presidents; Of counsel at Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP
Judy Sweet, co-chair: NCAA membership president from 1991 to 1992
Charles Ambrose: President of the University of Central Missouri
Amy Backus: Athletics director and chair of physical education at Case Western Reserve University
Nancy Hogshead-Makar: Chief operating officer of Champion Women
Joan McDermott: Athletics director at California State University, East Bay
Jacqie McWilliams: Commissioner of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association
Noreen Morris: Commissioner of the Northeast Conference
Bernard Muir: Athletics director at Stanford University
Julie Muller: Commissioner of the North Atlantic Conference
Greg Sankey: Commissioner of the Southeastern Conference