How do you effectively shame college sports into gender equity?
After a contretemps with the industry’s go-to Title IX consultant — and a reboot of her tactics — Nancy Hogshead-Makar is using big, loud data to make her case for women athletes in college sports.
photo credit: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Gold Meets Golden
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— Daniel Libit
“Nancy Hogshead-Makar, please don’t talk to her.”
By Luke Cyphers and Daniel Libit
In our deep dive last month into the world of college sports consulting, we spoke with Helen Grant, who consults with university athletic departments about federal Title IX requirements for equal access to educational opportunities in sports.
Grant offered plenty of information on how she does her job, which is making sure colleges steer clear of government sanctions when it comes to providing sports opportunities for women. And apropos of nothing, she also offered the above admonition about steering clear of Hogshead-Makar, a well-known Title IX activist, Olympian and attorney.
Title IX, signed into law in 1972, is seemingly straightforward when it comes to its gender equity requirements: Any educational institution receiving federal dollars may not discriminate on the basis of sex. In sports, that means an equal opportunity to play. Full stop.
This is supposed to mean equal funding for scholarships in proportion to participation, and equitable treatment and benefits — e.g., in facilities, equipment and recruiting. But while the growth in women’s college sports since the adoption of Title IX has been universally lauded, actual compliance has proved to be an elusive goal and a loaded topic, with lots of fog and furor over what exactly it means to follow the law.
That history informs the 2015 dustup between Grant and Hogshead-Makar, the founder and CEO of the women’s sports advocacy group Champion Women, who was in the midst of a letter-writing campaign encouraging scofflaw universities to better comply with the Education Amendments of 1972.
In an interview for our consultants piece, Grant offered The Intercollegiate a harsh critique of activists such as Hogshead-Makar, who in Grant’s view fail to understand the realities of college sports. For instance, Grant accused some, though none by name, of wanting to downsize or eliminate men’s sports, including football.
“I was at a school (Southern Miss) where we lived on football,” Grant told us.
“I’ve experienced things from the point where I will never fight football. Football is the reason we are here and it always will be. “
Grant maintained that many of those same activists didn’t want women’s collegiate sports involved in the NCAA. In the first decade after the passage of Title IX, women’s college sports programs had their own association, the AIAW. The AIAW disbanded in 1983 after the NCAA jumped into women’s sports and convinced most of the powerhouse programs to join. The battle ended a long time ago. But Grant remembers.
“Those women like that didn’t want women’s athletics to join the NCAA, which was about as stupid as anything could be, because in my opinion, and you can quote me, what Title IX did in 1972 when it was passed, it made our colleges and universities offer sports for women, which they should have been doing,” Grant says. “But what put women’s sports on the map and at the point they are now, which is pretty doggone equal — not in money spent but what they get in experience, the competitive experience and academic experience and personal experience — joining the NCAA is what created all of that.”
Grant also recalled a contentious phone call with Hogshead-Makar. “She hung up with me telling me I should have never should have gotten into Title IX consulting,” Grant said.
We wanted to get Hogshead-Makar’s side.
She provided us with a 2015 letter she wrote to Grant, which recapitulated their original hour-plus long phone conversation. It’s a comprehensive recollection of Grant’s arguments, as Hogshead-Makar heard them, followed by the Champion Women CEO’s attempts at a thorough, point-by-point refutation.
“There will always be excuses for those that do not wish to provide equality,” Hogshead-Makar’s letter states. “Outside consultants should not cave to excuses that have been dismissed both legally and empirically.”
What was the upshot?
Since their phone call, Grant’s consultancy has only grown, and she boasts of advising more than 100 clients, many of them repeat customers. Despite all this, the incident clearly still stings. In recent weeks, Grant has repeatedly declined our requests to unpack her initial, unbidden critique against Hogshead-Makar and others she described as “the staunch women’s advocates”:
I am (not) sure it is smart for me to engage in a battle with Nancy publicly via an article. Professionally, I would think that my way of approaching the troubles of our intercollegiate athletic problems (very little to do with Title IX) today could be misconstrued and appear to be contrary to Title IX.
For Hogshead-Makar, however, the confrontation was an early step en route to a massive shift in tactics.
The call with Grant yielded nothing, Hogshead-Makar says. And over the next few years, Champion Women’s attempts to reason with schools through a letter-writing campaign garnered similar results.
“One thing that I realized is, if I really wanted to get change for women, we’re going to have to go big,” Hogshead-Makar told The Intercollegiate. “We were not going to be able to stay with writing these 15 letters a year to schools and letting the community know.”
For much of the past five years, Champion Women had been quietly informing individual university athletic departments and other stakeholders that they were out of compliance with the law, based on data the schools submitted under the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act, or EADA.
“The idea was not just to reach the school, but also to reach the donors, their development department, Pan-Hellenic, their student government president, the school newspaper,” she says. “We tried not to do a lot of media around it. We wanted schools to fix it, and not do it out of shame.”
She figured the EADA numbers told the story, couldn’t be argued with, and would spur change.
“Title IX compliance is not hard,” Hogshead-Makar says.
“It is the one place in the entire school, because sports are uniquely sex-segregated, where it is easy to measure whether or not you’re treating men and women equally.”
One reason Hogshead-Makar phoned Grant was that Grant’s name kept coming up as a consultant the colleges used. She says she was trying to impress upon Grant that her clients were denying equal access to women athletes.
Grant’s reaction was condescending, Hogshead-Makar says, with a tone of, “You just don’t understand,” and “You’re being unrealistic, Nancy.”
Hogshead-Makar says she has no agenda against football or any other men’s sport. “I think you can have 100 men playing football, and that you can have on the women’s side a soccer team, a lacrosse team, a rugby team and a swimming team, and those two things are equal,” she says. “Fine by me.”
In some activist circles, such as The Drake Group, there have been calls to reduce the size and administrative expense of programs, including football. “Right,” says Hogshead-Makar, who has done legal work with the Drake Group. “But again, I don’t care! You could have 200 football scholarships, for all I care. I just want what you provide to the men, you provide to the women.”
Champion Women’s new approach involves collecting the EADA data in one place and letting the colleges’ miserable Title IX compliance records speak for themselves. She hired Janine Kuestner, a former thrower at Tennessee, to help her crunch the numbers and present them in a publicly accessible format.
This summer, the first step of what Hogshead-Makar calls “a 50-step process” was the unveiling of Champion Women’s database on a new website.
You can peek at or pore over the data in a number of ways, including this Google spreadsheet, which, using pass-fail grades, shows just how few schools are actually meeting the equal-access requirements of the half-century-old law. It’s a fairly easy way to gauge whether your favorite school is complying and gives a snapshot of where each school falls short.
The sheer scope of the non-compliance in the EADA data is depressing.
Champion Women’s aggregate funding numbers show male athletes received some $972 million more in scholarship aid than women athletes in 2019. Hogshead-Makar’s aim is to highlight such disparities—especially at a time when she says schools are using the COVID-19 crisis to disproportionately cut women’s sports.
“This is planned-for, intentional sex discrimination,” Hogshead-Makar says. “When Janine and I first looked at what the difference was, there was 60 seconds of no talking. This was a billion dollars a year (shortfall). Because they’re women.”
Besides putting a magnifying glass on the numbers, Champion Women hopes to foster more activism among athletes. One strategy: Pressure whole conferences, rather than individual schools, to add sports for women. She says women wrestlers are proving to be effective at such tactics. “Women wrestlers are a different breed,” Hogshead-Makar says admiringly. “They really take no prisoners.”
It’s all part of a learning curve.
“I have two character traits that drive my husband crazy and me crazy,” Hogshead-Makar says. “One is, I am really an optimist. I always think I can go into a situation and I can make it better. And the other thing is I really like to win.”
But after nearly five years of measured, reasonable activism, the optimist came to a grim conclusion. “I’m not winning.”
Clearly, her polite, earnest efforts failed. “I really wanted to give these schools a chance to change these horrid numbers without using shame,” she says. “I’m way beyond that now. … If you want to play the diplomatic game, you’re going to lose.”
Now, she’s playing a numbers game, using the sheer weight of the EADA data to show the pervasive sexism in NCAA sports. Champion Women’s messaging will flow from that, Hogshead-Makar says, and it won’t be quiet any longer.
She has taken inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement and its fearless demands for major change. No stranger to Washington, Hogshead-Makar met several times over the years with the late Congressman John Lewis. “He was always really generous with me,” she says. “And he talked about getting into good trouble, necessary trouble. We’re ready for some good trouble.”
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