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IOWA CITY — When Iowa women’s tennis took recruits to football games in the 1990s, the team had to be careful.
Take the wrong way to the stadium, and recruits would see Iowa’s 16 courts in the shadow of the Kinnick scoreboard doubling as parking for football donors.
“Of those 16, we could scrape together maybe six courts that were playable for match play,” former Iowa tennis coach Paul Wardlaw said. “They had cracks, oil from cars was on there.”
The coaches had to throw sand on the courts for the oil leaks. It also was a popular place for pigeons to do their business.
“My coaching words of wisdom were always like, ‘Alright, after practice, make sure to wash your hands,’” Wardlaw said.
Now, women’s tennis coach Sasha Schmid and other Iowa women’s coaches don’t have that issue.
“I’m so grateful for the coaches that went ahead and fought those battles,” said Schmid, who remembers the facilities from her time as an Iowa athlete and assistant coach. “Now we’re to the place where we have this amazing, beautiful facility.”
But 50 years after the passage of Title IX, many challenges remain at Iowa and across the country.
“We have to be vigilant,” former Hawkeye softball coach Gayle Blevins told The Gazette. “There has to be a constant push. … We have to continue to lobby to improve situations and to make sure that we’re standing on firm ground.”
The national concerns about Title IX have risen since Politico obtained a draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade’s protections of abortions.
Both Title IX and Roe v. Wade were significant-yet-controversial advances in women’s rights in the early 1970s. The repeal of the latter is likely imminent, leaving some to wonder if the former is in danger, too.
“A lot of people can feel like, ‘Well, we reversed Roe v. Wade, and that’s been on the books for quite a few years,’” Blevins said. “Well, there are people who would probably be happy to see Title IX go under.”
Gender equity at Iowa
Gender equity in Iowa’s athletics department has been the subject of various legal challenges during athletics director Gary Barta’s tenure.
Longtime administrator Jane Meyer won her lawsuit in 2017 against the department for discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. The jury of five women and three men gave a unanimous verdict.
Former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum’s wrongful termination lawsuit netted a settlement of about $1.5 million and an additional $1 million in legal fees weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin.
In the wake of Griesbaum’s firing, four field hockey athletes filed a civil rights complaint the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging Iowa violated their Title IX rights — a rare action for athletes to take against their current school.
The investigation “found insufficient evidence of a violation” in six categories while giving the university time to further assess and resolve seven categories.
The department’s NCAA financial reports — an annual disclosure to the NCAA obtained by The Gazette through public records requests — has shed light on funding of men’s and women’s sports.
In some areas — number of scholarships and camp expenses, for example — spending has been similar between men’s and women’s teams.
On the other hand, some other areas are far from equitable, according to a Gazette analysis of Iowa’s NCAA financial reports from the last five fiscal years.
For every dollar spent on travel for men’s teams during the five-year span, Iowa spent 86 cents for women’s teams. The travel gap had been steadily shrinking between the 2016-17 and 2019-20 fiscal years, but it widened again during the COVID-19-affected 2020-21 fiscal year.
For every dollar spent on recruiting for men’s teams in the five-year span, Iowa has spent 51 cents for women’s teams.
For every dollar spent on meals specifically for male athletes, Iowa has spent 8 cents specifically for female athletes.
The disparity in meal spending does have an asterisk. Iowa reported some meal expenses on its NCAA reports that were not for a specific team or specific gender of athlete.
However, the uncategorized section made up less than a quarter of spending. It could affect the extremity of the spending imbalance, but not the existence of one.
Iowa is not the only school to have this trend. Wisconsin, for example, spent 66 cents on women’s teams’ recruiting for every dollar spent on men’s teams’ recruiting in that same five-year span.
Barta was unavailable for an interview to discuss Title IX, athletics department spokesman Steve Roe told The Gazette, but Roe sent an emailed statement.
“UI Athletics constantly monitors compliance with Title IX and makes adjustments to meet the individual needs of our sport programs, providing our student-athletes opportunities to compete for Big Ten and NCAA championships while earning a degree from a world-class university,” Roe said. “UI Athletics is currently collaborating with a Title IX monitor for the next three years to ensure its compliance.”
The Title IX monitor is part of the settlement to the swimmers’ Title IX lawsuit.
Leah Reynolds, a Title IX expert for TNG Consulting, said assessing whether a disparity in budgets means a school is or isn’t in Title IX compliance can be complicated.
“It’s really not as black and white as many people think,” Reynolds said. “It’s not a matter of just saying, ‘Well, here’s the percentage point, that’s the golden percentage point that folks should pay attention to,’ because the reality is if we say 5 percent, 5 percent is different for a school that has 500 students versus 20,000 students.”
Title IX has a “three different prongs” for compliance by athletics departments, Reynolds said, and schools can choose which of the three they want to follow.
How to bring more revenue to women’s sports
Many women’s sports advocates have looked for ways for women’s sports to generate more revenue.
In 2018-19, the last fiscal year with data unaffected by COVID-19, men’s teams were responsible for about 64 percent of the revenue. Another 34 percent was not specific to men’s or women’s teams.
Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder is a proponent of conferences negotiating a separate media rights deal for women’s basketball rather than packaging it with other sports.
“What they could be making off women’s basketball — they are underselling us,” Bluder told The Gazette.
Bluder also would like to see women’s basketball have unit distribution for revenue distribution — similar to what men’s basketball has.
“If your women’s program is bringing in money through unit distribution, they’re going to invest more in it,” Bluder said. “They’re going to want it to be more successful.”
The longtime Iowa coach “absolutely” believes having more women in leadership in athletic departments and conferences across the country can help make that change.
Schmid, meanwhile, has personally worked to ramp up interest in women’s sports through her HERkys’ Voice podcast.
Amid the department’s financial challenges in 2020 amid reduced football revenue with the delayed and shortened season, Schmid realized the current structure is “not going to serve us well.”
“It became so crystal clear to me that we have to do a better job of connecting with our communities in women’s sports so that we can become more financially independent,” Schmid said. “In my little world, I thought, ‘What can I do to help?’”
That was when Schmid was “listening to so many podcasts” during her many solo walks during the height of COVID-19. She also was watching ESPN’s Last Dance documentary series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
“I have the same drama that takes place every season on my tennis team,” Schmid said. “It would be like a highly-watched Netflix special because we are very compelling."
So the podcast is her way of increasing interest in women’s sports. Schmid also envisions corporate sponsorship opportunities as an eventual revenue stream.
“I have a lot of people that don’t agree with me, but I guess I would say, you don’t know unless we start to try and think differently and be creative,” Schmid said. “I’ll put my money on the value of women’s athletics.”
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