Women’s Sports Are Legislators and Administrators’ Favorite Excuse For Oppression

In the wake of one extremely leading poll, conservatives and powerful NCAA admins are showing their whole asses when it comes to women's sports and athlete pay.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

If you’ve ever watched or covered women’s sports, few things induce a spit take like hearing staunch conservatives — or just the people who have the power to draw attention to women’s sports, who instead perpetually ignore them — suddenly pledging to stop at nothing to protect women’s right to a level playing field. And yet, that’s what’s happening, both with the onslaught of legislation pointed at banning trans athletes’ participation in youth sports and as conversations about the NCAA’s monopoly on unpaid athlete labor heat up with its current Supreme Court case, NCAA v. Alston.

Their supporters, at least, are generally people who consider women’s sports fine but inherently second-class based on a warped perception of the so-called free market. Most people who vote for conservatives believe they are where they are because of their own hard work and ability, and anyone who has less than them must be less deserving. It’s an assumption of individualism that translates into general disdain for women’s sports — after all, if they were better, more people would pay attention, because all value is ultimately monetary and exists in a vacuum of empirical correctness. Women’s sports make less money and thus are worse and ultimately a waste of everyone’s time, according to these bright thinkers.

That’s one reason why it’s so offensive to hear Republican lawmakers waxing poetic about the importance of girls’ sports (the other reasons are all various facets of bigotry). Girls who play sports who would never have been a topic of discussion otherwise are suddenly a convenient, appealing disguise for violently anti-trans rhetoric. In the case of the NCAA, college athletic directors are once again ramping up a familiar argument that any move towards compensating players or even loosening its monopoly in antitrust cases like NCAA v. Alston signals a death knell for Title IX. 

womens volleyball

Yesterday, the Associated Press published a survey of 357 athletic directors that asked such totally impartial and not-at-all leading questions as, “If your school begins compensating athletes in revenue-generating men’s sports such as football and basketball, how will that affect your school’s ability to comply with Title IX?” It will likely not surprise you to learn that 75.3% of those athletic directors responded that it would be “much more difficult” to comply with Title IX — which, it is important to note, is not actually optional. Their argument is that paying football and men’s basketball players would be so expensive that suddenly athletic departments would have insufficient funds to carry the enormous burden of funding women’s sports.

“Football revenue supports women’s golf, women’s tennis, women’s softball, women’s volleyball, women’s soccer, women’s track and field on this campus,” one anonymous AD wrote in his survey, conveniently ignoring all the non-revenue men’s sports that are also subsidized by the football and basketball cash cows AND how brazenly exploitative it is to rely on the unpaid labor of certain athletes whose market value happens to be higher to create athletic opportunities for others.

It is an excuse, not an argument — and one that willfully misunderstands how the NCAA’s legal future will likely intersect with Title IX, because the threat of cutting women’s sports is a lot more convincing than the threat of cutting coaches and administrators’ salaries, which is what will likely be the optimal reaction by these supposedly cash-strapped athletic departments as limits on athlete compensation are lifted, and which few people besides said coaches and administrators will have any problem with.

As economist Andy Schwarz has repeatedly pointed out, any end to limits on player compensation only requires athletic departments to reconfigure their approach to spending. Every school will be subject to Title IX, so every school will have to assess how they can compensate say, a star running back, in light of how much they will also have to subsequently spend on women’s sports (and presumably, the rest of the men’s sports). 

gaudy new facilities and flashy uniforms will be less important once players have the chance to receive actual American dollars for their work

There isn’t likely to be a minimum wage, only the choice between a scholarship or a scholarship plus some kind of additional NIL contract or compensation. Plus, gaudy new facilities and flashy uniforms will be less important once players have the chance to receive actual American dollars for their work — currently, most Power Five schools have amenities that far outstrip those of any of the American professional sports league.

In essence, it’s not about the simply impossible burden of women’s sports, as these athletic directors describe it, happy to ignore that women’s basketball and softball have more than earned their keep — not that that’s supposed to be the point of college athletics! It’s about a willful battle to maintain an oppressive status quo, because the alternative requires them to do a little more work for a little less money. Any antitrust action against the NCAA will only make Title IX more effective, not less.