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Welcome to The Big Show: Women in NCAA Division I Athletics

Illustration for article titled Welcome to The Big Show: Women in NCAA Division I Athletics

Every year, thousands of women suit up to participate in National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I athletics. Wearing their school colors, these women take to the court, the pitch, the pool, or the boathouse, and compete for their university. That being said, NCAA Division I Athletics are arguably still a place of privilege. Do male athletes receive an advantage when compared to their female counterparts? What privilege comes with being an athlete on campus?

Anecdotal evidence about privilege and personal experience abounds. In order to get an honest view of experiences faced by Division I athletes, I spoke to Betsy Nilan. Betsy Nilan is a two time Division I NCAA Rowing Champion. During her tenure at the University of Virginia, Betsy was co-captain of the rowing team. Betsy also received the UVa/UK Fellowship, which allowed her to teach various academic subjects, and coach rowing, at the Bryanston School in England. Betsy graciously allowed herself to be interviewed by me for this piece. My questions to Betsy are in bold and italics, with her answers below.

Not a lot of the general populace knows about rowing. How did you get into rowing? Do you think that rowing is a sport for the privileged? Were any of your teammates women of color?
"My family has been vacationing on Cape Cod for my entire life, so when I was little I always enjoyed taking my family members for rows around the lake we stayed on. When I was in sixth grade, I remember my mom taking me to watch a race at Fairfield University on the Housatonic. Because of my interest, I signed up for the Yale Community Rowing Program, which allowed me to see how I actually liked BEING in a racing shell rather than just watching them from afar."

"The Yale Community Rowing Program is a free program run out of the Yale Boathouse. It encourages diversity, and ensures that the economic cost is no barrier to participation in the Greater New Haven and Naugatuck Valley region. Rowing has the reputation for being a sport for the privileged- probably because of its huge presence in the Ivy League schools, and other prestigious schools like Cambridge and Oxford. Although that reputation is still there, there have been many strides to break down that stereotype and encourage diversity within the sport. There are other programs besides Yale Community Rowing around the country, like Row New York, that offer rowing to inner city and underprivileged youth, helping shape their minds AND bodies. Row New York also has a para-rowing program for kids over the age of 12 with cognitive or physical disabilities. There is definitely a more inclusive attitude toward people of all backgrounds participating!"

"I have had women of color on each team I have been a part of."

As women, our bodies are always on display for public consumption. We are either too thin, or too muscular, or too bulky. Did you experience any pressure to conform your body to any kind of athletic ideal during your tenure at the University of Virginia?
"I never felt any pressure personally to change my body. When I started rowing at UVA, my team was looking to win National Championships, which meant we had to be as fit as we could. Needless to say, I was definitely working towards being as strong, fit, and in shape as possible. Rowers tend to have the stereotype of being 'too' muscular, or having very broad shoulders or backs, but I never thought of that as a bad thing. On my graduation day I wore a strapless dress because I was proud of my back muscles. I was ripped at the time and I loved it."

What were some differences between male and female athletes at your University? Were male athletes treated differently than female ones? How did you react to being under the microscope (as athletes so often are)?
"Being a Division I athlete definitely meant I was under a microscope. The community in Charlottesville was very small, so everyone knew everyone. If I wore a UVA rowing shirt out in public, I would, without a doubt, have one or two people come up to me and talk to me about either my coach or our season. It was nice, especially since our team had a great reputation and was very successful. UVA did a great job representing someone from each sport, male or female, in their magazines, on posters, and advertisements. One of my best friends and co-captain was put on a huge banner that hung on a lamppost outside of our huge arena, JPJ. It was very exciting!"

"There is definitely respect for the women's teams at UVA, but I would say less interest, just looking at the attendance at women's games, sports or meets, when compared to major 'money making' men's college sports like football, basketball, baseball, and lacrosse. I remember one experience I had after a morning lift at the newly renovated gym. I was with a few teammates and we were so excited because there was a brand new smoothie bar that we couldn't wait to try out before our long day of classes. The problem was, it was for football only. Although that smoothie bar wasn't for our sport or any other sport, I couldn't help but wonder why."

"The locker room my team had for 60+ girls was smaller than the bedroom I had at school. It had three showers and you shared a cubby with a teammate. I loved my teammates so being crammed in a small locker room was never an issue. I know there are other locker rooms that have leather couches, conference rooms, flat screen TVs and Jacuzzis- but rowing was not one of those sports. I don't think it was an issue of male or female, but rather the sport we were with. Rowing isn't a sport with many spectators, and we don't bring in money from our regattas so I always told myself that was the reason why."

"Although we had a boathouse a few miles from campus, we never had our own facility to train in during the winter. My coach Kevin referred to our team as a 'blue collar' team. Our equipment, facility and gear were not over the top; we had enough to do our job the right way. We worked hard and we won National Championships, staying true to our motto, 'humble and hungry.' We would use the old basketball arena when it was not being used to roll out our rowing machines and spin bikes, taking full advantage of the arena to do stadium runs. Seeing 60+ girls at 6am competing on the rowing machines with the music blasting was one of the most intense and empowering things ever. Title IX also makes a difference because it gave so many girls an opportunity to be a member of the rowing team since we have such a large football team at Virginia."

Do you believe that NCAA Division I Athletics is the equivalent to professional athletics for women? Why or why not?
"I think it could be. In rowing especially, after college, the only other option you have is the Olympics. I was not on that Olympic track so I currently just go on the rowing machine for personal fitness, and probably will never compete again. For me, collegiate rowing was a professional sport."

What was the culture of the athletic department at your University? Do you think that it supported women and feminist beliefs?
"It definitely supported women and feminist beliefs. My coach, Kevin, is really inspiring, patient, and encouraging. He was, and still is, a father figure to me, and treated every one of his athletes like a daughter. I have never had a conversation with him about if he is a feminist or not, but the way he lives and the way he carries himself tells me he is absolutely a feminist. I think that has a lot to do with the success UVA rowing has had. Everyone I dealt with in UVA Athletics pushed me and encouraged me to be the best student, athlete, and person I could be."

What advice do you have to young girls who aspire to be Division I athletes?
"I think they should be smart about what they do in high school. Take the SATs early, and look at schools that offer scholarships. There are so many opportunities out there for young girls because of Title IX, and they just need to take advantage of it. I was so privileged to have been able to attend UVA for four years, and it is because of Title IX that I did."

What are differences between female athletics in England and female athletics in America?
"There were different sports. Netball was popular for girls and rugby for boys. I think that seeing sports in a boarding school environment, where boys and girls were required to do sports, was different from what I was exposed to in America. In England, rowing was not as popular, but again I think it has to do with the location and the fact that sport was not seen as voluntary to the group of high school pupils I looked after."

What is your opinion on transgender women competing on female sports teams?
"I don't think that keeping someone out of a sport that has the possibility to open up SO many doors, and change a life, is a good thing. Rowing certainly changed my life, and gave me an opportunity to receive an amazing education, so why would I not want everyone to have that opportunity?"

In order to get the media's side of the story John Altavilla courteously answered all of my inquiries. As John's biography page on the Hartford Courant website states: John Altavilla, a native of Trumbull, CT., has worked at The Courant since 1996, covering a variety of events including major league baseball, the NFL's New York Giants, UConn women's basketball and Yale football. He is set to begin his eighth straight season as the Huskies' beat writer in 2014-15. Altavilla attended the University of Bridgeport and began his sportswriting career with the New Haven Register in 1980. Much like with Betsy, my inquiries to John are in bold and italics, with John's answers being visible below.

John, you've had the opportunity to interview a myriad of athletes; from my problematic man crush Jeremy Shockey to Maya Moore. On the whole, what are some differences in the way athletes of both genders, and both levels (professional and collegiate) are treated?
"For the most part, in my experience, is there is a significant difference in interviewing male and female athletes. And although the explanation sounds trite, even a bit simplistic, I attribute that to the fact female athletes, at all levels, are inherently kinder, less self-involved, more understanding of how the media can help them and more appreciative of the opportunity to speak to it."


"Those females who play sports at the NCAA Division I level are not there because they expect it to lead them automatically to fame and fortune; a very, very few of them make significant money after college. They are there for "the experience" of being a student-athlete. And although some fall to the side, either because they can't cut it academically or socially, they seem to enjoy the very idea that someone finds them interesting enough to write about."

"The male athlete – and this is a generality based on my experience with high-level Division I athletes and professionals who play hockey, baseball, football and basketball – are in it for the fame, fortune and whatever extracurricular activity fame and fortune brings them."

Do you believe that NCAA Division I Athletics is the equivalent to professional athletics for women? Why or why not?
"The way the sports landscape is set up makes it virtually impossible for any female athlete who doesn't play basketball – and perhaps soccer and hockey (to a much lesser extent) – to capitalize financially from their skill, either as professional athlete or product endorser. There is only one substantial professional league for women – the WNBA. And even then, a woman, because of the WNBA's salary constraints, needs to have extraordinary talent – Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Sue Bird, Maya Moore, Tamika Catchings are a few that come to mind – to make big money playing overseas and as product endorsers."


"Those who do not play basketball likely need to be beautiful – or perceived as such by marketing and advertising executives – to cash in on the notoriety they earned in athletics. See Danica Patrick, Hope Solo, Lindsey Vonn and Alex Morgan."

The NCAA Tournament is a huge money maker for both schools and advertisers. The NCAA Tournament also has an interesting use of gendered language, the "Cinderella story." In your experience, do female athletes view this tournament differently than male ones? Why or why not?
"I don't believe "Cinderella Story" is a term that applies to gender. It's more of a real-life application; a descriptive way to identify a team that comes from nowhere, from shambles, to be a star and win a championship. It is a part of our lexicon now, used in many different ways - thanks to Bill Murray and "Caddyshack."

"I can tell, with no reservation, that winning the women's basketball Final Four means as much to the UConn women (or those who try to beat them) as it does to their male counterparts. And it may mean more because for many of them the event brings to an end a very important part of their lives."

Arguably, in this NFL season, more attention was given to "deflate gate" than domestic violence or concussions. Why do you think that is?
"I think DeflateGate simply replaced the focus on domestic violence because it was "the hot story." The television media, in particular, is famous for focusing intently, nauseatingly, on one story for days, sometimes weeks, until something else just as sexy comes along. This is referred to as a "news cycle." Some last longer than others. When the next big story comes along, the air will come out of Deflategate, too."


There seems to be a culture of apathy around male athletes. Teams will often look in the other direction if a player is behaving badly as long as they continue to produce. Why do you think this is? Do teams have a moral obligation to the general public? Or instead, as corporations, do they solely have an obligation to the bottom line?
"In the old days, I believe this was very true. Players like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb were boorish, and those personality traits were observed perhaps even more closely by reporters because they actually traveled on the same trains with athletes. They ate, drank, smoke and caroused together. Any personality shortcomings of athletes were laughed off by media and ignored by ownership in order to preserve their teams."

"Over the last three decades, this has slowly changed. And I'd say there is likely less apathy now for misbehaving athletes than ever before in their history of interaction with media. There is a greater sense of social obligation to the feelings or women, minorities and special interests. Advertisers are more vigilant about their clients. Even television networks seem to react quickly when one of their own gets into trouble, as we've just seen with the prostitution solicitation cases of Greg Anthony and Warren Sapp."

The term "pink hat" is misogynistic and has often been used to describe female fans of sports by the media. Why is being a woman and a casual fan so offensive to them? Fair-weather fans existed prior to teams producing pink gear, and they were never so maligned.
"I can't say that I have ever heard the expression of 'pink hat' but I have seen many of them worn to events, by both genders, on days when cancer awareness in the agenda at an arena."


"There are fair-weather fans of all types in all sports. They have traditionally been referred to as 'bandwagon jumpers.' Now, if you are a true fan of a team, and you notice someone who has never before expressed their affection suddenly foaming at the mouth over the team's success, that's the most objectionable thing of all.

They can wear any color hat they want."

What advice would you have to a girl or young women who aspired to be a sports journalist?
"Be professional and diligent. Try to remain above the fray, should social pressures become too great, either from players wanting to date you or competitors wishing to discredit you because they feel a woman doesn't have the necessary credentials to cover a 'man's sport.' I am a man covering a woman's sport. You don't have to tell me about it."


As the author of this piece, the words of Betsy and John resonate with me. I too have a personal connection with collegiate athletics. I was a NCAA Division II Varsity Athlete for a year in college, prior to switching to a club sport for 3 years. Later on in life, I worked in a NCAA Division I office. I have also worked in professional sports. Admittedly, I had more conversations when working with professional athletes than I did with when working in the University's athletic department. I specifically remember talking to a professional hockey player about Shostakovich, and discussing the nuances of Roadhouse with a professional baseball player. I had no such tête-à-têtes with collegiate athletes. That being said, I do have experience with the behind the scenes workings of a NCAA Division I program. In upper tier NCAA Division I programs, athletes are given opportunities that are rarely available to other students. I remember massages for athletes getting expensed to and paid for by the athletic department. Required study hall freshman year for incoming athletes is a time that allegedly forces new student athletes to get work done. Tutors dedicated to just the athletic department are readily available to assist athletes who are struggling. Academic advising for these athletes is done by individuals who work for the athletic department; these employees guide each athlete throughout their time at the University. One could argue that these perks, along with athletic scholarships, are fair compensation that athletes receive for being the faces of programs that make colleges and universities thousands of dollars per year. I myself experienced privilege solely because I was an athlete at the Division II level. My high school grades were all over the place. If my coach had not flagged my application as being one of an athlete, there is no way I would have been able to attend the university that I did. The relationship between an athlete and their University is symbiotic.



Arguably, the whole point of attending university is to obtain a degree in the field of your choice. While the NCAA crows that graduation rates for athletes are rising, there is still one statistic that glares at the reader: NCAA graduation rates for Black male athletes stand at a stark 52 percent, 11 percent higher than the general student body. Female Black athlete's graduation rates stand at 63 percent, 13 percent higher than the general student body. Academia needs to examine why Black students, regardless of being an athlete or not, are leaving college without being equipped with a degree.


Title IX, which was passed in 1972, has also been instrumental in leveling the playing field between the genders. Title IX, which includes a clause about barring discrimination in school sports, continues to create opportunities for women seeking a collegiate athletic career. That being said, the fight for equality is not over. While it is overwhelming common to see a man coach a women's team, the same cannot be said when the roles are reversed. Only 2% of coaches of NCAA mens teams are women.

The NCAA makes every effort to be an inclusive entity. On the NCAA's official website, in a section called "Inclusion," the NCAA states:
As a core value, the NCAA believes in and is committed to diversity, inclusion and gender equity among its student-athletes, coaches and administrators.
The NCAA makes good on that promise by providing a Power Point explaining their policies on transgender athletes. As this Power Point illustrates, NCAA Division I athletics are not solely for cisgender college students. Although policies for transgender women are stricter than transgender men, (it is worthy to note that these policies also do not erase decades of unacceptable social stigma directed towards transgender athletes), this is a plan worthy of note to anyone who champions feminist causes.

NCAA Division I athletics are "the big show" for the women who compete in them. After years of training, an opportunity is given to them to compete under the lights at one of the highest levels in sports. What drives women to compete is not tangible. For many women, there are no professional sports contracts to sign after school. There are no endorsement deals rolling in for the overwhelming majority of these women. Women competing in Division I athletics do so for something intangible. Women compete for the love of the game, their college or university, and their teammates. This imperceptible determination is equally as laudable as being a first round selection in the NFL draft.

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