“People are hiring too many men,” former Notre Dame women’s basketball head coach Muffet McGraw told ThinkProgress back in 2019. In 2018, she was the only female head coach of any of the last four teams vying for the NCAA title in women’s basketball. For most of the final decade of her coaching career, McGraw had an all-female coaching staff. This fact should be unremarkable, but when it comes to coaching in women’s collegiate sports, it isn’t.
We’re celebrating a half-century of Title IX, and there is much to celebrate. In the 50 years since the passage of the legislation that banned sex discrimination in federally funded educational settings, the number of women and girls participating in sports has skyrocketed. A few years prior to the passage of the law, just 15,000 women participated in college athletics — from recreational to the elite level. Five decades later, more than 200,000 women play sports across all divisions of the NCAA. While there were more forces at work than just the law and its enforcement, it’s undeniable that when it comes to women’s participation rates, Title IX has been a success.
But Title IX has also left us other, less glowing numbers, such as these: In 1972, when Title IX was passed, more than 90 percent of collegiate women’s teams — across all sports — were headed by women. By 1978, the first year that colleges were required to comply with the legislation, that number had dropped precipitously to 58.2 percent, according to a study by R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter using self-reported data from athletic departments.
The share then fell below 50 percent in the 1980s, where it remains.
The loss of ground for women coaching women’s sports does appear to be an unintended consequence of the landmark legislation. The number of teams and sport options for female students increased, as did the money allotted to them (though still paling in comparison to what the men receive). But women lost control over their own sports at the coaching and administrative level. The most obvious example of that was the demise of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.
The AIAW was created in 1971 to govern women’s college sports, when the NCAA included only men’s sports. But after the passage of Title IX, the NCAA decided to start sponsoring championship games in women’s sports, and it forced the AIAW out of business.
“At the time of the NCAA’s ‘takeover’ of AIAW, the association had approximately 1,300 women in leadership roles,” sports historian Joan Hult wrote in “Women’s Struggle for Governance in U.S. Amateur Athletics.” “Under the NCAA plan, less than 350 women would be guaranteed leadership roles, and only one or two in a powerful decision-making position on the council.”
Many of the forces that pushed the AIAW to extinction are the same ones that have created the current situation in women’s collegiate coaching. While less than half of women’s programs are led by female coaches, nearly 95 percent of men’s teams are under male control. “Men have a dual career pathway into coaching. They can coach men and women,” said Nicole M. LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. Women, on the other hand, rarely get the opportunity to coach men, which is why there are headlines when a woman takes a place on a men’s team’s coaching staff. (And when a woman does get that shot, it’s usually in an assistant capacity.)
“When you look at all coaching positions, women really have one-quarter of the career pathways that men do,” LaVoi said.
How did a law that created so many opportunities for women in sports inadvertently lead to them losing control of the very teams that they had started? Well, it’s a tale as old as patriarchy — and male-dominated athletic departments.
By the time that Title IX passed in 1972, women’s collegiate sports were already growing in the U.S. (Women’s college sports made their first appearance in the late 19th century.) If women’s interest and participation in sports hadn’t already existed, it is unlikely that the legislation would have been understood to apply to sports. As with many progressive movements, legislation is rarely the starting point of the process.
The AIAW was founded right around the time that Title IX was getting off the ground. It started with 278 member institutions, but by 1979, that number had grown to 970. Among its many accomplishments was creating rules for women’s collegiate athletic competition and hosting national championships. Leaders of the AIAW wanted to provide more opportunities for women, but they were resolutely focused on being inclusive, educational, participatory and staunchly amateur.
“These women leaders envisioned a new model of intercollegiate athletics,” Hult wrote. “They accepted the desirability of organized competition, but rejected the commercialization rampant in men’s sports (NCAA).”
That attitude was all well and good before Title IX, as there was almost no money allotted to women's sports. But once the law passed, female athletes looked at what their male counterparts had and started to demand the same for themselves. Chief among those demands was the right to receive athletic scholarships, just like the men got. Female athletes sued the AIAW for being in violation of Title IX for refusing them scholarships.
“There’s this tension, especially when you can look to what the men have and say, ‘we deserve that,’” said Victoria Jackson, sports historian and professor of history at Arizona State. “ ... And then you have leaders of the AIAW saying, ‘No, that’s not amateur. We’re going to champion this educational philosophy that’s serving students.’ You can’t really have that continuing to exist when, what the men have, no matter the hypocrisy, calling it amateur and educational, the men are better supported in those ways.”
That lawsuit led to the AIAW allowing female athletes to begin receiving scholarships in 1973. “Title IX continued to operate under the assumption that the male model of athletics was the NORM for determining discrimination,” Hult wrote. “So the courts, and many feminists, used the male model as the criterion for what parity meant.”
Awarding scholarships to female athletes, while perhaps at odds with the AIAW’s founding philosophy, was not the death knell for the organization or women’s governance of women’s collegiate sport in the U.S. That would come at the hands of the NCAA and the school athletic departments dominated by white men.
With the passage of Title IX, women’s sports were moved from university physical education departments to athletic departments, which had previously been tasked only with managing men’s teams and competitions. When this happened, women’s athletic programs were put into a subservient position in the overall athletic hierarchy. “With each new merger, women administrators and directors of physical education and women’s athletics were demoted to secondary positions,” Hult wrote. “Men athletic directors and heads of physical education departments were almost automatically given control of the merged departments.”
When it came to hiring coaches for all of those newly created women’s teams, the male athletic directors seemed to favor male candidates over female ones. And many men wanted these jobs. Even if coaching women wasn’t viewed as being as prestigious as coaching men, it was, in many cases, an improvement over being an assistant for decades to a male head coach who would never retire. “Because Title IX mandated that a coach of a women’s team be paid ‘something’ (seldom comparable to a man in [a] parallel position), men suddenly desired to coach women’s teams, and their male cohorts in director’s positions hired them,” explained Carole Oglesby, one of the cofounders of the AIAW, in an email.
“They hired what they knew,” Jackson said of the athletic directors. “They hired their idea of what leadership looked like, which from their perspective was a white man.”
(“Part of this was, ironically, a fear that coaches were lesbians, and that they were predatory, never thinking that male coaches might be abusive or predatory, of course,” she added.)
As male athletic directors hired men to start or take over women’s teams, the NCAA started to make its push into governance of women’s sports. The organization’s behavior indicates that it wasn’t motivated by a love for female athletes or a desire to see their teams and programs flourish: The NCAA had lobbied to exempt sports from the Title IX legislation in the first place, and when that failed, it sued the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to prevent its regulations from taking effect. That gambit also failed. That’s when the NCAA decided to get in the women’s game, seemingly taking the strategy of “if you can’t beat them, might as well take them over and marginalize them.”
The NCAA started offering national championships for women in more sports, using AIAW rules but scheduling several of them to conflict with AIAW national championships, forcing programs to choose. The NCAA also offered athletic departments a sweetheart deal that the growing but still fledgling AIAW couldn’t match — no membership dues for women’s programs at universities whose men’s programs were already aligned with the NCAA. Membership dues were a crucial source of income for the AIAW, which needed them to keep its women’s programs in the fold. Additionally, the NCAA offered things like covering the cost of travel to the national championships. Add to these financial incentives the fact that male athletic directors who were now in charge of the newly merged athletic departments were already quite comfortable working with the NCAA, and it’s not surprising that many universities jumped ship from the AIAW. Membership dropped from 961 to 759 in just one year, from 1980-81 to 1981-82. Participation in AIAW-sponsored national championships declined by 32 percent.
At the local university level, female athletes and administrators walked a tightrope when it came to working with their new athletic department colleagues and figuring out what was in the best interest of their athletes. Jackson spoke about how Frances Hogan, the women’s tennis coach and associate athletic director for women’s sports at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, ended up supporting the move from the AIAW to the NCAA. Hogan worked at the university for nearly four decades and, according to Jackson, kept every piece of paper that ever crossed her desk. In her research for her dissertation, Jackson came across a pro/con list Hogan had written about staying with the AIAW vs. leaving it to be governed by the NCAA. “The reasons for staying in the AIAW was so much longer than the list she'd come up with for the reasons to go to the NCAA,” Jackson recalled. But the far fewer reasons for going with the NCAA were the ones that mattered in the end. “In her mindset and her position, she understood that her bosses were the athletic director and the chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, two men, who also wanted to move to the NCAA. … If her goal is to make sure her athletes are served, she has to be a good team player for the university, too.”
As more and more women’s programs left the AIAW for the NCAA, the organization lost not only those membership dues but also money from the TV contracts they had negotiated to televise women’s championships. NBC cited the decreasing numbers of AIAW member institutions in its decision not to pay out the TV contract the women’s sports organization had negotiated.
The NCAA and AIAW had, at various points during the 1970s, met to discuss merging their operations. But the AIAW insisted that it had to be a union of equals, which is not how the NCAA saw itself in relation to the AIAW.
The NCAA’s regard for women as junior partners in athletic governance was demonstrated in the five-year plan it agreed to: According to Hult, the plan “assured women a maximum of 16 percent representation on the NCAA council, and from 18-[to]-24 percent membership on other important committees. Women were made chairs in situations where only women competed in a sport, yet rarely was there an entirely women’s committee even in women’s sports.”
By 1982, the AIAW’s Hail Mary — a suit against the NCAA on antitrust grounds — had failed. The organization that had overseen the rapid growth of women’s sports in the first decade of Title IX was dead.
“Not as many women want to coach,” said Geno Auriemma, the longtime head coach of the legendary Connecticut women’s basketball team, in 2017. “It’s that simple.” This comment kicked up a kerfuffle online that even had Auriemma’s daughter weighing in on Twitter, urging her father to walk his remark back.
That assertion hardly seems plausible when you consider that Title IX has led to sharp increases in female athletic participation, and the vast majority of coaches are drawn from the ranks of former college athletes. While it’s certainly true that not every female collegiate athlete will want to pursue a coaching career and not every standout athlete will have the chops to be a good coach, there are probably enough that want to and have the talent to be successful at it. There should be plenty of women in the coaching pipeline.
But whether women become head coaching candidates has everything to do with how they’re treated while in the pipeline and whether they can even get in the queue to begin with. And that queue starts with assistant coaching positions.
At the assistant coach level, women comprised just about half of all available spots in 2014. “One of the main findings is that for those sports where we see fewer women head coaches, we are also seeing fewer women assistant coaches,” said Lindsey Darvin, professor of sports management at SUNY Cortland. “If we’re not seeing women gain those experiences at that lower level, then we cannot … expect them to then be able to reach the higher levels.” (Auriemma, for his part, has consistently hired all-female coaching staffs during his winning UConn tenure.)
“We’re not saying that women have to be 99 percent of assistant coaches, like we see on the men’s side, but you would expect it to be at least near 75 percent,” Darvin said. In researching assistant coach hiring trends, Darvin said she and her fellow researchers thought that they were going to encounter more coaches like McGraw, who stated bluntly that she would only hire women. “They all said, ‘I just want to hire the best person for the job,’” she said. “We only had one woman who said, ‘Nope, I will always hire women.’”
It is understandable why a female coach might be reluctant to boldly proclaim that she will only hire women to coach her female athletes. “The thing with women is, some of them are very vocal advocates,” LaVoi said. “And some of them are very reluctant to hire an all-women coaching staff because they don’t want to be perceived as having an agenda.”
When McGraw made her public proclamation, she was already a championship-winning coach nearly at the end of an illustrious career. Plus, as a white, heterosexual woman, she had privilege to burn, as LaVoi noted in 2019. The same statement coming from one of the few Black female head coaches in the women’s basketball game would probably have received even more backlash.
“The flip argument is that if a male [coach] hired an all-male coaching staff, whether it be coaching women or men, nobody would ever say he had an agenda,” LaVoi said. “Our report card a couple of years ago, we looked at that, and 23 percent of all Division I [women’s] teams had an all-male staff.” Of course, those coaches would simply tell you that they had hired the best person for the job.
Women’s basketball, where McGraw and Auriemma built their legacies, actually tends to fare better than most women’s collegiate sports when it comes to hiring women. The numbers look a lot worse in sports where the genders are combined for training purposes, such as track and field and swimming. “Those in hiring positions of power — directors of track and field and associate athletic directors — are disproportionately men, and, historically, they have held an assumption that male athletes would not want to be coached by women and, more basically, an accompanying assumption that men are inherently better coaches,” Jackson said. “So we see more women coaches in combined gender sports do the same work as the assistant coach for distance or throws or sprints or jumps, but too often without the title, equal pay, or any pay at all (when they are a volunteer coach).”
LaVoi commented that these combined-gender sports programs get the worst marks in their annual report card for their staff composition. “Swimming and diving, they get F’s on our report for the percentage of women head coaches,” she said. “There’s very few directors of swimming that are women, meaning they oversee men and women’s swimming, and the swimming coaching staffs, and track and field for that matter, who also has an F, there typically are six coaches on that staff. And there’s usually five out of the six are men, so they have their token woman.”
Some might argue that as long as female athletes are getting the opportunities and resources that are mandated by Title IX, it shouldn’t matter whether they’re coached by men or women. But the research argues that the identity of who coaches an athlete does matter. “First and foremost, we know that same identity role models matter. For everybody,” LaVoi said. “Role models are good for increased self-esteem, self-perceptions, body image.” This knowledge appears to be almost conventional wisdom when it comes to men, but it’s less obvious when it comes to female athletes, which is why it needs to be explicitly stated. Also, as LaVoi noted, female athletes are safer under female tutelage. “They’re much, much, much less likely to be abused, whether that’s emotional, physical or sexually abused, if they have a female coach.” (Though female coaches can also behave abusively toward their athletes. Case in point: the recent allegations against University of California, Berkeley, swim coach Teri McKeever of verbal abuse and bullying.)
Female coaching role models also help pave the way for female athletes to move into the coaching profession. “Women coached by women are more likely to go into coaching and stay in coaching,” LaVoi said.
But it takes more than having female role models to retain female coaches. Darvin noted that sports and the current athletic structures were created for men, who then “dictated the hours worked.”
“Men dictated recruiting [practices]. Men dictated a level of control in these settings,” she said. “I firmly believe that as women entered these spaces and entered [the] higher levels of these spaces as head coach, they’ve kind of just had to buy into that culture.” The mere presence of women in these athletic spaces hasn’t transformed them, in part because many female coaches and administrators are more precariously situated than their male peers. “Women aren’t recycled the way that men are,” said Stanford basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in 2017. A male coach who is fired will probably be scooped up by another school in short order; a female coach might find herself unemployed for a longer period of time.
To retain more women coaches, the culture of athletic departments will have to change in a way that they’ve largely avoided in the 50 years since Title IX and the loss of women’s governance of sports. “You have to recruit women, and you have to really support them in a different way,” VanDerveer said.
The current predicament of female coaches inside college athletics speaks to what happens when very good legislation — which Title IX undoubtedly is — doesn’t fully transform the patriarchal structures that it aimed to change in the first place. In order to get more women at all levels of sports — from athlete to coach to administrator — university athletic departments had to be completely reorganized from the ground up, which, of course, they weren’t as Title IX was being implemented. The male-dominated athletic departments grudgingly accepted women’s sports into the mix, changing as little as possible about their own structures and hierarchies to accommodate them.
“One of the trappings that’s really easy to fall into for women’s sports is trying to mirror and mimic every single thing that men’s sports has done,” said Megan Rapinoe, captain of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, in a recent interview with Time magazine. “We don’t have to use every single thing that men’s sports has done, because frankly, not all of it has worked.” Anyone with a passing familiarity with the exploitative and abusive college sports system knows that a lot hasn’t worked, at least from the standpoint of athlete well-being. Women deserve the same resources as men as well as the recognition and promotion of their sports, but it’s ridiculous to try to make women’s sports a facsimile of the very flawed male model. “We should understand what’s good to take,” Rapinoe said, “and where we can innovate, where we can move forward.”
But this doesn’t mean that things can’t improve, that they haven’t already been improving. LaVoi believes that the work that she and others have done over the years has helped move the needle. “I think that some of our work is starting to take hold,” she said of the annual report cards that her team has created. “What I’ve learned is that athletic directors don’t like to be graded.” And they certainly don’t like to get the F’s or D’s that LaVoi has awarded some of them over the years.
“The last eight years, the percentage of women head coaches of [Division I] women’s teams has gone up. And this year, it’s been the largest margin of increase we’ve ever had,” LaVoi said. The jump is not massive, around 1.3 or 1.4 percent, but it shows consistent progress in the right direction. “This year was the first time ever in 10 years that more women were hired than men.”
“Just now, 50 years later, that tide is beginning to turn ever so slowly,” Oglesby said. “But so slow.”