Foul Play: How Colleges Screw Over Female Coaches

Coquese Washington, right, is an example of a stand-out NCAA coach: A former WNBA player, she's led Penn State's women's basketball team since 2007 and has won three Division I national championship. (Photo by Penn State)

In recent years, the athletic director at the University of Iowa has fired five female coaches. When he hired male coaches to fill two of those jobs, he paid them 25 percent more than their female predecessors. But the three female coaches who filled the other jobs were paid 13 percent less than the women they replaced.

This is one specific example the kind of unequal treatment illuminated by a new investigation into how female coaches are faring at colleges nationwide. The report, “A Man’s Game: Inside the Inequality that Plagues Women’s College Sports” published last week by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, shines a light on a disturbing pattern of college athletic departments hiring fewer female coaches, paying them less, restructuring athletic departments to give them less power, and then retaliating against female coaches who speak out against discrimination. In 1972, Congress passed the landmark civil rights bill Title IX, which made it illegal for any educational institution to discriminate based on gender. But the share of female coaches employed by colleges has actually declined since then.

In the years right after Title IX passed, two coaches and Brooklyn College professors started noticing that female coaches seemed to be disappearing from the court. The duo, R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter, started collecting data. And they never stopped. For the past 37 years, the pair has published detailed stats on the demographics of coaches hired and fired at 1,100 colleges. The numbers show a frustrating trend. In 1972, women coached 90 percent of women’s teams. These days, women coach 43 percent of women’s teams and only a handful—two to three percent—of men’s teams. While Title IX created groundbreaking and powerful protections for female athletes, coaches have been left largely unprotected—and that’s resulted in decades of discrimination.

As Acosta and Carpenter explained in an article for the American Association of University Professors, before Title IX, most coaches of women’s teams worked for free. The passage of Title IX led to a huge increase in the number of women’s sports teams—and coaches were finally starting to get paid. “Men who had no interest in coaching women for free, or who had been barred by the unwritten but generally followed road sign ‘only females need apply,’ quickly began filling the coaching ranks in women’s athletics,” write Acosta and Carpenter.

The initial shift away from female coaches happened in the late ‘70s early ‘80s. “What continues to be baffling is why it hasn’t changed,” says reporter Annie Brown, who wrote the new Center for Investigative Reporting article. “Why hasn’t this rectified itself? It felt like a mystery.” Over time, there’s a sense that female coaches have been losing ground instead of gaining it. Between 2000 and 2014, NCAA schools created more than 2,000 new head coaching jobs in women’s sports. But the majority of the time—65 percent—those jobs went to men. At the same time, female coaches are paid far, far less than men: Coaches of women’s teams average less than a quarter of men’s team head coaches’ salaries, a 2015 study by the Scripps Howard Foundation found. Some schools’ pay inequality is especially egregious: The average coach of a men’s program at University of Texas makes a whopping $1.3 million more than the average coach of a women’s team.

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Of course, a gender-and-race based wage gap persists across industries in the United States. What’s unique about NCAA pay is that  it’s publicly disclosed (every college across all divisions is required by the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act to submit its average coaches’ salaries) so the disparity can be clearly tracked and seen over time. While the University of Iowa example shows how men are often paid more than women even when they’re coaching the same team, the numbers also show how the wage gap is self-perpetuating. Many colleges pour funding into the sports that traditionally make the most money—men’s basketball, baseball, and football—leaving the other sports to scramble each year for resources. The NCAA system has also long been criticized for how student athletes remain unpaid, despite traveling and playing for extremely long hours and bringing in million in revenue for colleges. “Certain sports are such moneymakers, so it becomes a business. The athletic director is the CEO of a really big business. So the focus is on the sports that make the most money,” says Annie Brown. “There’s an argument to be made by female administrators who I’ve talked to, where they say this really shouldn’t be the point, that ‘We’re in the business of education, not making money.’”

Charts from NBC's Today show reporting on the US Women's National Soccer Team wage gap.

But even when women’s teams are more successful than their male counterparts, colleges tend to pay female coaches less. In 2015, the University of Minnesota-Duluth made headlines when it fired five-time NCAA national championship-winning women’s ice hockey coach Shannon Miller, saying her salary was too high. But the men's hockey coach, who had a far less successful track record, made more money than Miller and still kept his job. and makes more money than Shannon Miller does, still has his job and his comfortable salary. The lack of equal pay in sports is gaining attention in professional sports, too. This spring, member’s of the US Women’s National Soccer Team filed a federal complaint about gender-based wage discrimination. In 2015, the U.S. women’s national soccer team generated far more revenue than the men’s team—$20 million more. But the women on the team were paid just a quarter of what the players on the men’s team.

Reporter Brown says she hopes the new investigation will prompt sports fans to think about the gender dynamics behind-the-scenes of their favorite teams. “We let this industry, college sports, get a pass from some of the social critique that we apply in other parts of society,” says Brown. “I think we close our eyes to some of the ways our favorite sports teams or our hometown teams are perpetuating some of these inequalities because we just want our team to win.” But over the long run, it’s clear, women are usually on the losing end—no matter how many championships they win.   

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by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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