Cover Story

Title Run

by Jeremy Alford

With Title IX guiding the way, UL Lafayette has helped female athletics clear many hurdles over the past 33 years. But disparities in salaries and budgets remain, and some critics contend the finish line is still miles away.

Sneakers squeaking on a hardwood floor, rubber reverberating on steel, bursts from an official's whistle ' the noises are a concerto to her ears. Ashley Blanche has spent countless hours waxing poetically on these very things, and tossing dreams at an orange hoop, all because she loves the game of basketball. She claims to have an intimate knowledge of every dimple on the roundball, a finely tuned touch that has been nurtured over time. She is proud to be a woman and proud to be an athlete. And make no mistake: this woman's got game. In 2004, she led the Lady Cajuns with 77 assists, played in all 28 games and later received honorable mention for Player of the Year in the Sun Belt Conference.

But there is a topic that humbles the 21-year-old hoopster from New Orleans. Just bring up Kim Perrot, the quick and nimble point guard who led the WNBA's Houston Comets to the league's first two world championships. Perrot is the stuff of local legend ' she's the all-time leading scorer at UL Lafayette with 2,157 points, and her No. 12 has been retired. Sadly, Perrot's life was cut short at the age of 32 by a rare form of lung cancer. "In the media guide they have all of her past stats, and she was amazing," Blanche says. "I'm inspired by her, where she came from and where she went."

There's a common thread that binds Blanche to Perrot, as well as other female athletes. Although she was born 12 years after Title IX was introduced to America, Blanche is well versed on the contentious law and realizes what kind of impact it has had on the game she loves. Title IX was instituted in 1972; it forbids sexual discrimination in any school program that receives federal aid. The original targets were schools of medicine and law, both of which have embraced equal standards for men and women. But as the law took hold, female lawyers and doctors obtained equality easier than female athletes, and controversy and resentment related to Title IX flourished with a fury in the field of collegiate athletics.

Proponents contend the law is empowering for young women and is only fair. Opponents argue the rules are slaughtering men's sports and amounts to an athletic quota program. Officials at UL barely say anything. Only two out of the nine female coaches at UL agreed to a personal interview for this story, and Interim Athletic Director David Walker agreed to field questions only through e-mail, relaying his clipped answers through Daryl Cetnar, the university's sports information director. Data on program budgets and coaches' salaries was obtained through public information requests, and questions for coaches were requested in writing before most of them were turned down.

The UL coaches interviewed for this story say the administration is hesitant to discuss Title IX because it's a touchy issue. A majority of the 13 Sun Belt Conference schools contacted for this story were reluctant to hand over budget figures regarding women's athletics and Title IX.

Title IX in theory is simple to understand, but the rules guiding it are not. The Office of Civil Rights, within the U.S. Department of Education, issues a standard three-part test. A school needs to pass only one section to be in compliance with the law. First part: Does the gender breakdown of student-athletes on campus mirror the male-to-female ratio of the school's enrollment? Critics lambaste this section as a form of gender affirmative action, and it often gets schools in trouble ' one-third of all federal complaints on file involve student ratios. Second part: Does the school have a history of adding women's sports? Proponents love this section because if a school can pass it regularly, it has a good chance of complying with the other standards. Third part: Is the school offering all of the women's sports its student body wants and the region can support? This section is somewhat vague and has sparked court challenges to clarify how the student body can be queried. Most recently, the federal government approved e-mail as an acceptable form of communication.

Officials at UL are unsure how the new e-mail rule will be applied locally but are forming a strategy. For now, they would rather stand firm on a record of consistently bringing in new athletic opportunities for women. Their own finances, however, are open to interpretation and a source of frustration for many. The differences between men's and women's programs at UL are glaring, as far as budgeting, and their financial allocations are among the lowest in the Sun Belt Conference.

Nationwide, the situation is quite similar. Title IX originally opened the door for women's sports, but the road to equality has been bumpy and ill defined and controversial. Still, there might not be a reason to cheer for women like Blanche, or discuss the WNBA, or watch the Women's World Cup, if it weren't for Title IX. Before the law's inception, only 32,000 women participated in college sports. Today, the figure is closer to 150,000. Additionally, 53 percent of students in Division I schools are now women, but they only receive 36 percent of their respective university's athletic operating budgets.

The fact that young women like Ashley Blanche are aware of Title IX is especially heartwarming for those who led the charge. It's an oddity of sorts. Even the coaches interviewed for this story sadly admit an overwhelming majority of their female athletes probably have no knowledge of the law. And some pro players are apparently no exception. Tennis phenom Jennifer Capriati had to plead ignorant when asked for a comment during the 2002 U.S. Open. Her response to a reporter's question: "I have no idea what Title IX is. Sorry." But the law is back in the headlines again.

In March of this year, the U.S. Department of Education quietly dispatched a letter of clarification to collegiate athletic programs describing an appropriate way to query the student body on women's athletics. The clarification states that schools can now simply send out e-mails to students asking if their "interests and abilities" are being met. A non-response would equate to a lack of interest. Proponents contend the new rule will allow greater flexibility in athletic budgets, while opponents argue that it helps schools shirk their Title IX responsibilities.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has come out against the change, urging its members to adopt another process to meet compliance. "The department issued its clarification without benefit of public discussion and input," says NCAA President Myles Brand. "The e-mail survey suggested in the clarification will not provide an adequate indicator of interest among young women to participate in college sports, nor does it encourage young women to participate ' a failure that will likely stymie the growth of women's athletics and could reverse the progress made over the last three decades."

Walker, who is only filling in temporarily as the athletic director at UL, says the NCAA recommendation will likely be followed, but the university's waiting to hear from its own conference to make a final decision. "The university has taken no position on the rule as of now," Walker says. "We are in discussions with the Sun Belt Conference." None of the coaches on campus have been officially consulted on the clarification, but that will soon come as well, he adds. For now, there are more immediate challenges regarding Title IX for Walker and his staff.

There are 16,561 students enrolled at UL, of which 58 percent are female and 42 percent are male. If the proportionality rule were to be consulted, there should be more women's sports on campus than men's. That isn't the case. Both sides of the fence have eight sports each, with track being broken down into three distinct programs ' an acceptable practice, according to the NCAA. The men have football, cross country, indoor track, golf, basketball, tennis, baseball and outdoor track. The women have soccer, volleyball, cross country, indoor track, basketball, tennis, softball and outdoor track.

According to UL's Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act on file with the U.S. Department of Education, covering the academic year of 2004, there are 169 male student-athletes on campus, compared to 94 females. Of all the financial aid doled out to these players last year, $958,901 went to men, while $492,462 went to women. Again, both of these statistics might draw a second look under the federal government's proportionality rule, but UL appears to be in good standing when it comes to its history of providing more opportunities to women over a long-term basis. And remember: UL only has to pass one section of the three-prong test during periodic reviews to stay in compliance. Recent efforts to maintain an acceptable pace, though, have slowed a bit.

UL's Athletic Department is in flux. Walker doesn't have a permanent office in the Athletic Complex and is still serving as the director of auxiliary services for the university. He has only a passing knowledge of the programs that were being pushed by Nelson Schexnayder, the former athletic director who resigned this summer. (A search committee has been formed to find Schexnayder's permanent replacement.) Meanwhile, initiatives that were once highly touted, such as a new women's golf team, seem to have fallen by the wayside. Deadlines reported to the federal government for the launch of the team have been missed, and plans are being pushed back.

But there have also been a few high points in recent history.

Over the past five years, a number of renovations and improvements have taken place to further improve women's athletics, especially at the Earl K. Long Gym. It has undergone several changes in the gymnasium, administrative offices and locker rooms for volleyball, basketball and softball. Additionally, UL will unveil a new $1.4 million soccer and track complex later this month, and on the horizon, a $3.6 million indoor practice facility is being planned for football, softball, basketball, soccer and track. Students approved an extra $22.50 in fees in 2003 to help fund the efforts, and sports tickets across the board have been raised in varying amounts from $1 to $2.

When asked if women at UL have the same opportunities to win as men, Walker says yes, adding the softball team has been more successful than men's baseball in many respects. And seasons marked with more wins than losses have certainly paid off for the softball team. Improvements to Lady Cajun Park, including new lighting and scoreboards, have made it one of the finest in the conference.

Overall, the number of female athletes has increased greatly in recent years, thanks mainly to the university encouraging walk-ons and through the introduction of soccer. As a popular regional sport, officials originally said soccer was chosen because it would have the most immediate impact on participation rates. When it was established in the summer of 2000, former head coach Dave Poggi had four months to assemble a team, create a schedule and develop the program ' all in an effort to bring the participation rates closer to the student body ratio.

Poggi, who is now the head women's soccer coach at Loyola University, says he wishes the program received more financial support when it started, but the end result overshadows all concerns. "For whatever reason, Title IX or the institution, it certainly allowed for more opportunities for female athletes," he says. "We had as many as 29 women benefit, and we had tremendous growth and tremendous success in a short period of time."

A golf team, which could add up to 10 new female players, is also in the works. According to a 1999 standard consent agreement between UL and the U.S. Justice Department, the program would be eligible for four scholarships, and the coach of the men's team would also head up the women. Competition was slated to begin this fall, but those plans have been put on temporary hiatus. The changeover in the athletic director's position has been partly blamed for the delay, but officials contend it's mostly out of caution. "We are still in the planning stages in women's golf," Walker says. "When we add the sport, we want to have everything in place to make it a success from the start. We don't want to be rushed like we were with soccer." UL officials contend they don't have to create a women's golf team to comply with Title IX, but they quickly add it would bring the student-athlete ratio closer to what exists in the student body.

The consent agreement, which serves as a self-evaluation for gender issues and other topics, is administered regularly at universities around the nation. In the most recent agreement dated six years ago, UL officials also expressed an interest in adding an equestrian program. Equestrian programs are one the hottest trends in collegiate sports when it comes to gender equity. Its roster size can often rival that of a football team, with some universities boasting up to 100 riders. In the 1999 agreement, however, UL suggested there would be about 25 positions for women available if it were explored locally. As a bonus, most equestrian programs also have yearling sales from their breeding component, which can net million of dollars for the school.

All of these initiatives have either increased female participation, or will in the near future, but the administrative side of the ball has also received some attention. Salaries have been boosted for women's coaches by 50 percent or more over the past decade in many cases, and new positions have been created for assistants and others. And while it all sounds positive on paper, numbers can often be deceiving, as can the benefits of the entire Title IX law.

Some sports fans around the nation refer to Title IX as a silent assassin. That's because more than 400 men's teams have been cut since the law's inception. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case brought by the National Wrestling Coaches Association claiming Title IX is solely responsible for the trend. Recent fatalities include the men's baseball and wrestling teams at University of Wisconsin-River Falls, gymnastics and golf at the University of Minnesota, and the wrestling program at Mount St. Clare College in Iowa. The list goes on, but not all such cuts have been due to Title IX. In most cases, it's purely an administrative choice. According to the National Women's Law Center, out of the 948 schools that added a new women's sport from 1992 to 2000, about 72 percent did so without cutting men's teams.

At UL, no teams have been officially cut, but the number of male athletes has dwindled greatly ' and it's all by design. In 1999, after conducting a self-evaluation on gender issues, UL officials decided to encourage more walk-ons for women's sports and fewer for men's. The limitations began to surface in 2000, principally in baseball and football, and the proof is now in the stats. The total number of male athletes went from 248 in 1995 to 169 during the most recent school year. During the same period, women athletes went from 69 to 94, due primarily to the introduction of soccer, which is another area where men may be suffering. While women have a competitive team that receives money from UL, the men have only a club team, though it's wildly popular.

But when it comes down to finances, there's no mistaking who gets the short end of the stick. Of all the teams in the Sun Belt Conference, UL allocates the fewest dollars for the salaries of their women's coaches ' on average, $28,671 per person. For men, the average is $52,043 annually. By contrast, at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, only $5,200 separates the sexes when it comes to average salaries, and the University of New Orleans bridges the gap at about $14,000. However, two head coaches in women's softball at UL split a salary, and the tennis and track coaches receive additional money for heading up the men's program as well. But even if these figures were merged into singular positions on the women's side, UL would still be represented as the fourth lowest in the Sun Belt Conference.

Cetnar points out that the salaries of women's coaches have increased 89 percent overall since 2001, even though athletic salaries in general have only increased 6 percent during the same period. "We are making significant progress, but everything can't happen overnight," he says. Supporters hope salaries are stepped up; sources in the athletic department say that at least one former coach was lured away by a high school that was offering a better salary. None of the coaches at UL would agree to comment on their salaries directly, but a couple did offer interviews regarding their operating budgets.

Not surprisingly, there are huge disparities in the overall athletic budget for larger programs like football. For instance, the expenses approved for the football program for the upcoming fiscal year eclipse all of the women's expenses combined by more than $1 million. For that reason, many believe football should be taken out of the Title IX equation altogether, as it's a different kind of beast. As for the whole enchilada, UL's total athletic budget for the 2005-06 fiscal year, including private sources, is $7.3 million.

Tennis and track are combined programs at UL, meaning the same coaches lead the men's and women's teams, and their budgets are somewhat proportional to their needs. Lance Veazey, the head track and field coach, says his situation is unique among the other coaches, and he wouldn't have it any other way. "We all go to the same meets and travel at the same time and eat at the same places," he says. "It allows for the same opportunities for men and women." There are about 80 athletes in the combined track program, he says, split almost equally between the sexes. The teams get nearly the same amount for recruiting, travel and total operating expenses. It's a working example of how funds can be equally balanced, but not all teams enjoy such a peaceful existence.

Softball has quite a few noticeable variations from its male counterpart, which allows for some differential treatment, but UL's basketball programs are worth comparing side-by-side due to their rosters, schedules and needs. They are essentially the same in several areas, but their budgets are marginally different. The men's total operating budget is $722,600, while the women's is $441,300. One area that stands out is travel ' men get roughly $140,000 annually and the women receive $92,000. As a result, female basketball players often wonder why they're traveling in vans while the men get to their games by bus. In its 1999 consent agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, UL admitted that some teams ride in vans while others use buses, but the "difference is attributable to differences in team size, not inequitable treatment," the university reported. However, in this case, both basketball programs are virtually the same size. Cetnar says there's no policy in place stipulating which teams get which transportation, and there's no law against it either.

Recruiting is another area of interest for basketball ' men get $28,000, while women receive $15,000. J. Kelley Hall, the head women's coach, is aware of the differences. "Is there a fair chance to win with the money available?" he asks. "Probably not. I think there's a disparity. But in my three years here it has gotten a lot better." Hall says he agreed to an interview because such a public discussion is healthy, even though it might be nerve-racking for some. "When it comes to this issue, it's touchy everywhere you go, and people are really job-scared," Hall says. "But I've been coaching for 24 years, and I trust this administration. They want what's best for the program, and that's what the community wants."

Ashley Blanche, one of Hall's star guards, takes it all in stride. "I think we deserve more," she says. "We've proven we're working hard. I think there are reasons at UL that men get more. It's because of the wins and losses. But the women's basketball program has been succeeding in recent years, and we're starting to get good recruiting classes." Hall has led the Lady Cajuns to the 12th longest winning streak out of all the 329 Division I teams competing today and coached them to a western division championship. With all their successes, Blanche and others believe a change should be coming down the line. Hall says more money could become available if the university puts more marketing into the team ' last year, only a few games were properly advertised toward the end of the season, he adds. As for a women's marketing plan at UL, Cetnar says there is nothing in writing, but it may be in the works.

Still, when asked by e-mail if disparities exist between men's and women's programs, Walker gave a single word answer through his sports information director: "No." Title IX turned 33 this year, and it remains as controversial as ever, forcing conversations behind closed doors and striking fear into those involved with women's athletics. As for the young women directly impacted by the law, it remains largely an unknown mystery, but that could soon change. The new e-mail rule is grabbing headlines around the country, and the Supreme Court's nomination process might do the same. Now-retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the majority decision in two rulings in recent years expanding Title IX. Her exit is seen as worrisome to women's rights advocates, who see John Roberts, President Bush's nominee, as hostile toward the issue.

Blanche and other young women athletes are taking notice, wondering if they're getting a fair shake, and hope the coaches, universities, politicians and lobbyists will find a way to even the playing field. Blanche's immediate concerns are much simpler, and a reminder of why Title IX was brought to life three decades ago.

"All I want to do is play," she says.