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NCAA Falls Short of Perfect Games

'Emerging Sports' Are a Mixed Bag

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 4, 2003; Page D01


The 74-lane Bowlerama is hardly a typical venue for an NCAA sporting event, beckoning teenagers with glow-in-the-dark lanes on weekend nights and wooing adults with vodka-laced raspberry Jell-O shooters at $1 a pop.

But women's bowling, after all, is hardly the typical varsity sport, with few parents or prospective students aware that athletic scholarships are available to women who can serve up strikes and spares on command.

Kimberly Williams gets high-fives after bowling another strike, a talent that has earned her an athletic scholarship because of the NCAA's attempt to balance men's and women's sports by instituting women's programs with low operating costs, high participation. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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Here at Bowlerama, amid the clang of video games and the crack of pool balls, members of the Howard University women's bowling team linked arms on a recent Saturday morning, bowed their heads and prayed.

They had traveled to Delaware to compete in a regional tournament against squads from Cheyney, Temple, Delaware and Shippensburg. And after the Amens were said, the Bison reviewed their game plan ("Don't get frustrated and keep a positive attitude!") and sent up a rousing cheer of "Biiiiiii-SON!" capped by high-fives all around.

Often derided as a pastime of the sedentary, bowling was granted varsity status for female athletes nearly a decade ago after an NCAA survey confirmed that male athletes dramatically outnumbered female athletes at college campuses across the country.

To remedy that imbalance, in 1993 the NCAA identified nine so-called "emerging sports" for women and gave incentives to colleges willing to field teams in hopes that more women, given the chance to play something new, would sign up. It was a quirky list of sports, to put it bluntly, and it has produced mixed results after a decade of effort.

Some sports -- such as women's rowing, ice hockey and water polo -- have seen explosive growth and now stage annual NCAA championships.

Others -- such as archery, badminton, synchronized swimming and team handball -- have drawn virtually no interest.

Bowling has found its core participants among women at historically black colleges and universities, which account for the majority of the 42 schools that field varsity women's teams.

Thanks partly to a boost from these emerging sports, the number of women who play college sports has increased more than five-fold since Title IX was enacted 30 years ago -- from fewer than 30,000 to more than 150,000 today.

But the legislation, which bans sex discrimination throughout education programs that receive federal funds, has wrought unintended consequences, as well. In an effort to balance athletic budgets while still providing additional opportunities for women, many schools have chosen to drop some men's sports that don't turn profits. The downsizing of men's sports has prompted heated debate, at least one major lawsuit and much of the momentum behind the current effort to reform Title IX.

The fear among advocates of women's sports is that without vigorous enforcement Title IX's carrot and stick, schools will backtrack on efforts to boost the ranks of female athletes and their investment in emerging sports.

"There is grave concern that could happen," said Barbara Chesler, senior associate athletic director at Yale. "Rowing is a perfect example, where institutions across the country put a sport on the table, and women took advantage of it."

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