A couple of days ago, I sat down to write about how Brittney Griner’s halftime tweet and second half domination in Baylor’s second round game against Florida State showcased the lack of parity in NCAA women’s basketball. I planned to write about how her tweet represented the spirit of entitlement among the elite women’s programs that had developed as a result of the stark contrast between the talent of the few elites and everyone else. I was going to talk about how the lack of parity put Griner in position to feel confident enough in her team’s skill set that she could tweet about dunks rather than focus on her opposition and making adjustments for the second half. Trust me, I had it all planned out. And then an amazing thing happened; Baylor lost. And they didn’t lose to a fellow number one seed or even a number two seed. In what may be the biggest upset in the history of the women’s game, they lost to the number five seed Louisville. And that wasn’t the only “Madness” in the Sweet Sixteen. Number four seed, Georgia, handed out its own upset when it topped number one Stanford. Contrast those results with last year’s (and previous years’) when all four number one seeds made it to the Final Four, and it may appear that the spots at the top may no longer be so cushy. However I’m not quite ready to suggest that these two wins signify that women’s basketball has arrived at the Parity Promised Land and that the women’s game is on the verge of acquiring the depth that the men’s game has. No, I still think that the ladies have a ways to go before March really gets “mad” for them. I do, however, think that these wins send a message to the public and the elite teams that parity is not as far off as once believed. “Not as far off” isn’t equivalent to right-around-the-corner, and I (being the impatient creature that I am) think things could and should move faster. In my quest to push things along, I’ve sided with the contingency that argues that a decrease in the number of scholarships available to each team can improve the level of competition in women’s basketball and bring the parity that the game needs.
Currently, the maximum number of scholarships available to any NCAA Division I basketball team is 15 for women and 13 for men, and the average sized teams are 16 for woman and 15 for men. Since teams are not filled with scholarship recipients alone it’s safe to say that reducing the number of scholarships, say from 15 to 13, probably would not prevent teams from filling their rosters. What I think the reduction would do is to spread the talent pool throughout more schools, making more teams competitive. If teams can no longer afford a team full of high-school All-Americans; those All-Americans will be compelled to attend schools with non-elite, but strong, viable programs, and work turn them into truly competitive programs. In other words, more teams would have top caliber players and become championship contenders. Not only would reducing scholarship numbers strengthen teams as a whole, but, on an individual level, women who may not get much playing time at talent-stacked programs could have the opportunity to start and become key players at schools with developing programs. Right now it is not uncommon for top players to sit on the bench because rosters are too deep to showcase everyone’s talent. From an institutional standpoint, a reduction in scholarships would also force head and assistant coaches to improve their recruitment tactics, as more schools would have the opportunity to secure better talent. For me, scholarship reduction is a surefire way to develop a truly competitive field in NCAA Division I women’s basketball.
I should acknowledge that there is a concern that a decrease in the number of available scholarships could violate Title IX. I believe that this concern is unwarranted. College athletic associations set the maximum number of scholarships that may be awarded per sport, not Title IX. Title IX requires that educational institutions provide a proportionately equal number of scholarships for male and female athletes. Therefore as long as an institution offers a proportionately equal amount of scholarships for its male and female programs, how those scholarships are allocated is irrelevant for purposes of Title IX. A decrease in the number of scholarships for basketball does not mean that women’s athletic programs would lose those scholarships completely. The scholarships taken from basketball could easily be transferred to another or other sport(s), thereby affording women who play other sports the opportunity to attend school for free while allowing institutions to maintain the proper Title IX balance. A decrease in basketball scholarships would not only improve the competitiveness of the women’s game, but it could actually turn into a positive windfall for other sports.
The alternative to decreasing scholarships would be to wait for progress to happen on its own. The women’s game is only in a slightly better position than the men’s game was about four decades ago when UCLA won 10 championships between 1964 and 1975. It has taken quite some time for teams to develop into legitimate title contenders and for underdogs to really have a chance at upsetting major teams. Right now the women’s game is trying to climb out of the shadows of the Tennessee and Connecticut. We can wait another ten or twenty years for the women’s game to develop into the exciting game that is the men’s game, or we can push it along by simply shifting scholarships to spread the talent. I say we push.
See Scholarship Stats, http://www.scholarshipstats.com/basketball.htm, last accessed 4/1/2013.