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Out of Washington this week came a resounding cry: "Women have struggled too long for equal opportunity to give in to the NCAA, the bully of the amateur athletic world, without a whale of a fight."
Those words came from an emotional Carole Mushier, president of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). She spoke at her organization's annual conference, in the nation's capital.
While most of the AIAW delegates arrived in high spirits, buoyed by HEW Secretary Patricia Harris' recent strengthening of Title IX, the conference soon grew grim with word from New Orleans that the National Collegiate Athletic Association, at its annual meeting, had considered starting its own national championships for women.
The NCAA announced on January 8 that it would indeed begin staging women's tournaments in a number of Division II and III sports. (The larger Division I schools decided to stand by and watch what happened before acting on the matter.)
So the battle lines were drawn. Women such as Mushier and AIAW counsel, Margot Polivy, talked of court action to stop the NCAA from moving in on women's territory. There was some discussion of an antitrust suit being initiated against the NCAA.
But the feeling of outrage was not unanimous. A number of AIAW delegates supported the NCAA move, calling it a possible step toward a merger between the two groups. Such an attitude, it seems, could be the best result of the NCAA's action.
Since the AIAW was formed eight years ago, it has faced the possibility of the old, established and wealthy NCAA moving in and taking over the organization of women's collegiate athletics. But consistently in past years, the men's governing body steered clear of women's sports, rarely racing them except when pressured by ever-controversial Title IX restrictions.
Two or three times in the past, the NCAA has talked about sponsoring women's tournaments; but only this year did the group act on the matter. And this year it acted forcefully, instituting the tournaments by a vote of almost four-to-one in both Divisions II and III.
In response, AIAW delegates and many NCAA members, railled against the decision, calling it a move to squeeze the women's group out of existence. Some have branded the NCAA vote a step backward that will diminish the athletic opportunities open to women by crippling the AIAW.
What the collegiate sports world faces in the year ahead is a glut of women's tournaments. Schools often will have to shoose between an AIAW sponsored championship and an NCAA sponsored one. The result, if most teams elect the new NCAA competitions, could be the death of the AIAW.
But the occasion does not warrant hysterical outbursts. The NCAA is not the bastion of quality and hardly can it be called a promoter of women's rights. Prior to the AIAW's creation, the NCAA barely recognized the existence of women athletes. And, the NCAA certainly has many other shortcomings, expecially in areas such as Division I football, where the elite member schools would like to think of themselves as professional farm teams rather than institutions of higher education that are interested in promoting athletic competition.
However, the NCAA is rich and powerful. The AIAW has suffered from second-class citizenship since its inception and as a result has been slow in building women's programs. On the basic levels, the AIAW certainly has made great strides in encouraging the blossoming of women's athletics. But now, facing the difficult talk of promoting these events at a high interest, high revenue level, the AIAW finds itself struggling. It might just benefit by accepting the NCAA's help.
When Dr. Gail Fullerton, president of San Jose State, said the "death knell" of the AIAW had been sounded because of the NCAA's decision, she expressed the potentially detrimental hysteria the vote could promote. By entering the women's athletics field, the NCAA finally has shown it must recognize women's sports as an established institution. If the AIAW works against the NCAA it will face the task of fighting a Goliath with barely the weaponry of David.
Title IX, if enforced and monitored as Harris has proposed, will force the NCAA--through its member schools--to treat women's athletics even more seriously in the future. The AIAW delegates, who laud themselves as the ones most interested in the further development of women's sports, could work to ensure that the NCAA considers women's matters more seriously. They also could walk away crying and try to live in their own world. That decision, though, seems likely to prove destructive in the long run.
As the American Basketball Association, the American Footval League, and the World Hockey Association have found out, it is difficult and painful to battle the establishment in the sporting world. Those rebel leagues kicked and screamed enough to make their older rivals take notice, feel a bit of pain, and finally consider harboring parts of the upstart groups.
Having won some recognition, most of these rival groups found it was easier to opt for merger (or assimilation) than to wage the costly fight for independence. The AIAW might learn from such examples.
The NCAA can afford to pay transportation costs for teams that play in its tournaments. It has the television and radio contacts needed to hype competitions. The AIAW lacks these and many other recources.
If You Can't Beat 'Em
If what the AIAW wants is high quality competition and well-run tournaments, it should seriously consider trying to work with, instead of against, the NCAA. It should pressure the NCAA to expand its own role in supporting and building women's sports. It should fight to maintain some of the gains it has won for women's athletics while giving women the benefit of the NCAA's wealth and influence.
Whether the women in this nation's colleges get an AIAW tourney or an NCAA one is not very important. That they get a fine sports program and high level tournaments is the crucial goal.
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