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Changing the face of Virginia sports

They'll tell you today that it worked. They'll tell you that it was worth all the money and hours and effort. Half-a-million dollars and five years later, the University is a better place for the female athlete.

In 1995, it was different world. Female coaches were underpaid compared to their male counterparts, and there were only 11 women's sports to 12 men's. Female participation in athletics was waning as the female undergraduate proportion continued to grow. Something had to be done.

So began a concerted effort by the University Athletic Department to make marked improvements in its treatment of female athletes. It added a rowing team to boost the number of women's sports to 12. It upgraded several of the women's coaches' salaries to the level of men. And it reshuffled the coaching ranks so the women's tennis coaching position was now full-time and the women's lacrosse and field hockey coaching positions - once combined - were split in two.

Five years later, with enough time to see the Athletic Department's actions come to fruition, the results of the changes look good. The rowing team has finished in the top four in each of its first four seasons. The lacrosse and field hockey teams have become among the nation's best. Female athletic participation has increased, from composing about 40 percent of all athletes before the changes to 47.3 percent in the 1998-1999 school year.

"It's definitely gotten better," field hockey coach Jessica Wilk said. "Since I started, we've made great strides."

But the University still has a ways to go before it reaches the gender equity guidelines outlined in Title IX, part of the landmark Education Amendments of 1972, and enforced by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

First, Virginia is expected to have its percentage of women on varsity teams be "substantially proportional" to the percentage of female undergraduates, according to Title IX. That 47.3 percent participation rate is good, but well below the female undergraduate proportion of 54.1 percent.

On other ends, the University is doing well on athletic gender equity. Scholarship revenue is divided equally according to participation, with 53.6 percent of scholarship dollars going to men and 46.4 percent going to women. Expenses, which encompass recruiting costs, operating expenses and coaching salaries, are also split as evenly as possible.

"We're about 70/30 on expenses, but there are a lot of extenuating circumstances," said Keith Vanderbeek, Associate Director of Athletic Business Operations. "As long as you're offering the same type of amenities, it's acceptable."

But while the scholarship and expenses proportions may be in line with the Office of Civil Rights' requirements, participation still is not. Virginia has 379 males and 340 female participating in athletics. To get that number up to Title IX standards, the University would have to add 106 more female athletes.

For a school with 6,731 female undergraduates, that doesn't sound like an difficult number to reach, but first consider that adding crew only boosted participation by 60. To make any more gains, the Athletic Department would have to add another women's sport, or change the balance by eliminating a men's sport.

However, that is a solution that Virginia wrestling coach Lenny Bernstein doesn't want to hear. His sport would most likely be the first to go. Other coaches, women included, also would rather not see men suffer for the sake of women.

"The thing that Virginia is trying to do is raise the level of women to the level of men," said Cheryl Carlson, the volleyball coach at Virginia Commonwealth and a former player at Virginia. "That in my mind is what Title IX is all about. I hate to hear about men's sports getting cut."

Incidentally, the general public disagrees. In a recent Wall Street Journal poll, 76 percent of Americans said they support cutting back men's programs to ensure equal opportunities for women.

But the Athletic Department is trying a different approach. Plans are already in the works to add a 13th women's sport in time for the 2001 NCAA recertification process, which takes place every five years. The last time recertification rolled around in 1996, Virginia introduced its litany of changes. This year, the Athletic Department may be considering more.

"Another sport is on the horizon," Vanderbeek said. "Creating another sport will help from the participation rate side. It would also be the more costly solution, though."

The most logical addition would be women's golf. The Atlantic Coast Conference has embraced the sport and five schools already have a team. N.C. State will join the fold next season, bringing the number of teams to six.


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