The world of athletics is a microcosm of society, says Evelyn Thompson, interim head coach of the women’s basketball team at Stony Brook. They test the limits of the human body—its coordination and agility, its litheness and strength— in activities designed just for that purpose. They exist in a world fashioned by society.
People value the physical ability to dunk a basketball into a 10-foot hoop. They value the mental discipline that pushes a distance runner ahead in the last 200 meters of a 10k race. That much has been true since the beginnings of civilization when the first organized athletic competitions took place. But it wasn’t too long ago that women were given an equal opportunity to prove their athletic ability—from a legislative standpoint at least.
Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the enactment of Title IX, the 1972 amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that combated gender discrimination in education and athletics. Since then, universities nation-wide have bound themselves to the premise of equal opportunity, equal funding, and equal support for women athletes—so much so that young athletes these days may not even know that gender equity in athletics was ever an issue, says Donna Woodruff, the Executive Associate Director of Athletics at Stony Brook.
“Sometimes when you don’t know what you’ve come from, you don’t know how to avoid problems in the future,” she says.
Woodruff’s career as a leader in athletics extends 20 years back, and though she says she hasn’t experienced gender discrimination in the workplace, she points out that whom you work for is important.
Problems in gender equity in athletics at Stony Brook aren’t apparent from an administrative standpoint, though it’s a constant struggle to keep the equilibrium. There are 10 men’s teams and 10 women’s teams—but as football consists of 63 men, it is the administrations obligation to provide 63 opportunities for women—an ongoing issue, according to Athletic Director Jim Fiore. He considers the options: dropping men’s sports—an unappealing choice—or adding a women’s team, like field hockey. But that’s not so simple with financial restraints.
“There are 30 kids on a field hockey team but with that you have to build a field—and that’s a $2 million dollar operation, plus scholarships, plus coaching staff, plus operations,” Fiore says. “How do we manage it?”
Aside from the struggle to keep the men’s and women’s rosters in proportion, everything else corresponds, aside from the yearly budgets of each team that tend to be more heavily funded on the women’s side. They have equal locker rooms; they play in the same gymnasiums, and have the same equipment.
They’re equal, the administration says.
But walk into a men’s basketball game where the sea of red in the stands glares off the shiny hardwood floors of the Pritchard Gymnasium. The fans rise and cheer with the teams successes; they sigh and wince at every missed shot.
Then enter the gym for a women’s game. The team is still there—they’ve trained in the weight room, on the court, and at the track. The coach is still eager on the sidelines, and the cheerleaders still cheer—but the crowd has diminished.
The men’s basketball team averaged 1,555 home game attendees in the 2010-11 season, just shy of filling the Pritchard Gymnasium to capacity. The women’s team averaged less than half of that with 645 people.
“It would probably take a dissertation to explain that,” Coach Thompson says chuckling. It boils down to a problem in society, she says. In the sports arena, men are more supported than women.
Fiore says it’s a national trend. He doesn’t know why. He can’t explain it. “We certainly haven’t been strong in terms of the win or loss column, so I’m going to put it on that,” he decides.
The men’s team went 15-17 this season, and the women’s 7-23. It’s a catch-22 of sorts, says Thompson. “We all know that when you have support, you tend to play a little harder—especially when it’s here at home in front of your Seawolf family.”
Dani Klupenger, a sophomore basketball player, sits on the steps of the sports complex with her straight blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail and unknowingly mimics her coach’s words.
“When you win, people want to come watch you, and when you lose, they don’t,” she says. When a lot of people are in the stands, it intimidates the other team. They bring the team’s confidence back up when things aren’t going your way, she says.
But forget wins and losses and move outside women’s basketball. The statistics are the same.
“Women’s lacrosse just doesn’t draw [attendees] nationally anywhere,” says Fiore. “We’ll host the Final Four here this year, and we’re hoping to get a great crowd, but the men’s Final Four we’d never be able to host because it’s too small a stadium—you know, 50,000, 80,000. We’re hoping to get 10,000 for the women’s Final Four.”
Perhaps it comes down to a society awed by the bigger, faster and stronger. It comes back down to values.
“You’re already an underdog when you’re a woman athlete,” Klupenger says. “People want to see men dunking baskets.” The more athletic someone appears, the more entertaining it may be, Woodruff agrees.
Her husband calls her in to watch the top ten plays on ESPN. “I do not want to see another dunk,” she says. “First of all, the guy is four inches shorter than the basket—he should be able to dunk.”
Media coverage of intercollegiate athletics parallels the numbers in the stands. When female teams play exceptionally well, they catch the public’s eye, and draw media coverage. Visitors to ESPN’s website today are greeted with the image of Brittney Griner, Baylor University’s 6-foot-8 forward, a phenomenal player—but an exception in female athletics.
“The reality is that ESPN wants our men—not our women,” Fiore says. “You don’t see a lot of our level women’s games on TV. We’ve tried to get them on MSG—MSG doesn’t want women’s basketball.”
Woodruff points out that it’s a business decision. “They know that they are going to have ‘x’ number of views,” she says. “They can sell that to corporate sponsors, to commercials.” And it’s the same for ticket prices at Stony Brook’s basketball games: Athletics can charge more for men’s games because they know people will pay.
The larger market for male athletics also dictates the salaries of head coaches, where there are large discrepancies between men and women. Allison Comito, the head coach of women’s lacrosse, made $63,916 in 2009, according to athletic department budget records. Rick Sowell, men’s lacrosse coach, made $150,800 that same year. Megan Bryant, the head softball coach, made $63,916. The men’s baseball coach, Matt Senk, made $87,831.
“The market really dictates the salaries,” Fiore says. “And to attract and retain people like Coach Pikiell, you have to do certain things, and even on that national level, he’s paid very low.” Pikiell, the men’s basketball coach, made $243, 988 in 2009. Michele Cherry resigned from head coach of the women’s team in January, and her salary was not available.
In explaining the discrepancy, Woodruff says there is not only more of a demand for men’s coaches but also more pressure to win on the men’s side. They receive more attention from the public. It’s similar to the difference in the salaries of athletic directors from one school to another.
Beyond the pay scale, however, the perception of women athletes has changed in the 20 or so years that Fiore has been an administrator. “Where it was almost taboo once upon a time to be a female athlete and lift weights, now it’s part of the culture,” Fiore said. “There’s beauty in a strong body.”
And that’s progress, it can be argued, though there’s still a ways to go.
“All of those fathers that dream of their sons going on to play at the division 1 level and being great athletes—sometimes they end up with daughters,” Coach Thompson said. “But those daughters also have that same opportunity, and that’s what we need them to understand: They deserve the same type of respect, and they also deserve the same type of coverage and they deserve the same number of people in the stands.”