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The formula for gender equality in sports

How the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women transformed women’s college athletics

Sam Thomas of the Arizona Wildcats celebrates with Trinity Baptiste on Friday after defeating the UConn Huskies in the Final Four in San Antonio. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
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Last month, a firestorm of criticism erupted after players shared images of a single rack of dumbbells and a stack of yoga mats provided for participants in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament in San Antonio — a stark contrast to the state-of-the-art, custom-built weight room available to men’s basketball players in Indianapolis.

It exposed the blatant double standard in college athletics and renewed demands for reform from female athletes, coaches and even politicians. An often forgotten chapter of college athletics offers hope that such reform is possible.

Before the first women’s NCAA championships in 1981, women’s intercollegiate athletics were led by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). At its peak, the AIAW was the largest intercollegiate athletic governing body, boasting over 970 member colleges and universities. Created by female physical educators, the AIAW believed that athletics should first and foremost enhance students’ educational experiences. This approach holds promise not just for rectifying the gender imbalance in college athletics, but also for addressing the exploitation of athletes that calls the very future of collegiate sports into question.

Founded in 1971, the AIAW purposefully built an entirely different sports culture: one created of, for and by women. It was collaborative, with a decentralized system of governance featuring an elected and unpaid executive board consisting of directors of women’s athletics, coaches and professors supported by regional and state organizations and numerous committees overseeing each sport, the national championships, ethics complaints and eligibility requirements, and more.

The AIAW rejected the NCAA’s commercial model, with its emphasis on generating revenue. Instead, the organization initially relied upon financial support from the American Association of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (now SHAPE America) and dues from 278 charter member institutions. Subsequently, the AIAW signed selective media contracts and sponsorship deals to meet overhead costs.

The AIAW model placed students at its core. It included a system of due process and appeal for athletes, and student representatives participated at every level of governance. Indeed, even at the organization’s annual meetings, students were encouraged to speak up and share their opinions, experiences and ideas.

As a women-led athletic governance organization, the AIAW was an anomaly, then and now. And the women involved became civically engaged, advocating on behalf of better resources and opportunities for female athletes.

Operating alongside, but separate from mainstream collegiate sports culture, the AIAW’s educational approach to athletics changed intercollegiate sports throughout the 1970s.

Whereas the NCAA valued sports based on revenue, the AIAW treated all sports equally. When signing media contracts, the AIAW mandated that a variety of divisions be included. If a championship tournament generated revenue, it was divided between the national office and participating teams as a way to support the growth of all intercollegiate women’s athletics. Most importantly, women’s athletics were the main focus; they were not in competition with or secondary to men’s sports.

Histories of intercollegiate athletics often note the explosive growth of women’s sports in this era and credit Title IX, which prohibited gender discrimination in educational institutions.

But there is a missing piece to this story: the AIAW.

Title IX became law a few months before the AIAW’s first championship season, in 1972. But, because this law was designed for academic programs, not athletics, Congress postponed compliance mandates as it determined what athletic equality in schools might entail.

As the NCAA and men’s athletic programs fought to exempt athletics, or at least revenue-producing sports, from compliance requirements, the AIAW aggressively lobbied for including them. In the process, it forged alliances with groups advocating for women’s rights in education and law, relationships that helped connect athletic opportunities with gender equality in society more broadly.

The AIAW tripled its membership from 1971 to 1979, when — at long last — Congress was set to release its final Title IX guidelines. This prospect prompted a well-funded lobbying effort from the men’s side to exempt football and delay compliance. In early 1979, the AIAW organized a massive letter-writing and lobbying campaign to counter this push. It included a rally and march on Washington — complete with pickup games of lacrosse, volleyball and field hockey on the National Mall.

That summer, AIAW President Carole Mushier spoke before the Commission on Civil Rights, explaining, “AIAW does not believe … that a group of male athletes who happen to play football should eat better, travel better, have better accommodations, better equipment or more coaching than other student-athletes. This kind of elitism is repugnant to the concept of fairness and is educationally unsound.” Exempting football would “merely permit continued discrimination to be defined as ‘compliance.’ ”

The AIAW won — but the victory was bittersweet. The final guidelines covered all sports and required compliance from all educational institutions. They offered hope of equitable resources for women’s intercollegiate athletics.

Yet almost immediately, the NCAA flipped from fighting against Title IX in Congress and the courts to paving the way to its own women’s championships. In early 1980, the NCAA approved women’s championships for Division II and III, without an organization-wide discussion of how it would or should change the historically male institution or what impact it would have on the AIAW. Throughout the next year, the NCAA’s leadership sowed fear that colleges could face legal jeopardy under Title IX if they ran athletic programs for men and women under different governing bodies. And in early 1981, the NCAA narrowly approved Division I women’s championships.

During this time, the AIAW never stopped working to improve women’s intercollegiate athletics. In 1981, it approved an affirmative action plan mandating the inclusion and support of women of color in leadership roles. The plan also addressed systemic racism in women’s athletics, such as the refusal of predominantly White institutions to travel to, or even schedule, historically Black colleges for games. In 1982, the organization also approved a Student-Athletes’ Bill of Rights, drawn up collaboratively by students and AIAW officers.

Even during the 1981-1982 school year, when the NCAA hosted its first few women’s championships, the AIAW still hosted 41 championship tournaments in 19 sports.

But the NCAA lured institutions to join its nascent women’s championship program with financial incentives and the promise of prestige, combined with warnings about Title IX noncompliance. The AIAW lost essential revenue and membership and ceased operations in 1982. Many women’s athletics leaders left or were fired, though some who stayed managed to move into leadership positions within the NCAA.

Tellingly, reforms focused on athletes’ well-being frequently originated with these women: Judy Sweet, the only female president in NCAA history, began her career in the AIAW and became a key advocate for women’s athletics in the NCAA. In 1992, she commissioned a task force to study gender equity, which was defined as occurring when “the participants in both the men’s and women’s programs would accept as fair and equitable the overall program of the other gender.”

At a moment when the disparity between the resources for the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments has laid bare that the NCAA is nowhere close to achieving such parity, it behooves us to recall the vision of the AIAW, which offered ideas relevant to many of the problems vexing college athletics today.

The AIAW included women in governance and leadership of intercollegiate sports, something that remains a novelty, especially for women of color. It consulted with and was responsive to athletes, and it prioritized their educations. It also shared revenue equitably and viewed women’s and men’s sports as being equal.

Crucially, the AIAW refused to let revenue drive its mission or thinking. The prioritization of revenue in college athletics has made football king, let media contracts worth billions dictate priorities and continued to regard female athletes and women’s sports as secondary. It exploits male and female athletes, something made clear by the #NotNCAAproperty campaign launched at the start of the men’s tournament. Scandals related to the abuse of athletes, experiences of racial discrimination, diminished academic experiences and the myth of amateurism persist. Today, some even question whether collegiate athletics have a future.

But the AIAW shows that there is more than one way to make college sports work — for athletes, men and women alike, and schools. “The AIAW is a governance organization,” then-AIAW President Christine Grant declared in 1981, “but it is also an idea.” Grant knew that whatever happened to the AIAW, “the idea will never die” — and advocacy by female athletes and coaches over the past month shows how right she was.