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ECU adheres, adjusts to evolving Title IX challenges

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East Carolina's Brittany Borchers celebrates during a game against Winthrop on Feb. 8, 2019. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Before he came to Greenville to become East Carolina’s athletics director, Jon Gilbert oversaw some remarkable growth in women’s sports at two previous stops.

He hopes nothing changes with the Pirates, who are set to embark on their second season in women’s lacrosse this spring after a difficult first one as the university’s first new team since the year 2000. Despite a mere two victories in the inaugural lacrosse campaign, no one knows better than Gilbert what can happen when a new sport is given the right opportunities, personnel and coaching.

The same lacrosse team opened the season with a home win on Friday.

“I was around Alabama when we started women’s softball,” Gilbert said in a recent interview of his previous role as one of the Crimson Tide’s associate ADs. “We played at a city park to start. They are a nationally recognized program today. They did not start off like that. It’s an evolution. I think it’s important to be supportive and understand the expectations early on with that competitiveness.”

The addition of ECU’s lacrosse team, announced by former AD Jeff Compher in March of 2016, largely was set in Title IX concerns. The federal civil rights law established in 1972 was designed to eliminate discrimination based on sex and create equal opportunity in all federally funded education programs.

While not originally specific to athletics, the positive effects and challenges created for high school and college sports programs in trying to create or maintain equality is perhaps the most visible aspect of Title IX. The challenges it presents are also well documented. According to Gilbert, making lacrosse — which costs the university $293,977 in operations and recruiting costs a year to operate, not including coaches’ salaries or scholarship money — a long-term success story means investing now.

“If we’re going to have a sports program, it’s important to support that sports program and invest in it,” he said. “I think we have some very good women’s sports programs that are competitive. I want each of our sports programs to be competitive, and I think it’s important to invest in those programs to be successful.”

The costs are comparable. ECU volleyball’s annual operations and recruiting costs are $235,150, while women’s soccer is $190,675. At the top of the food chain, like at most schools, is football at $2.60 million, though that number is lower than many others in the American Athletic Conference.

In essence, Gilbert believes creating success on playing surfaces and creating equal playing fields is often about putting your money where your mouth is.

“From a Title IX standpoint, we want to make sure that we are doing what we say we are going to do and doing it in a matter that is consistent with all of our expectations,” he said. “When I was at Southern Miss (as AD prior to coming to ECU), we added a 17th sport in beach volleyball, and No. 1, you’ve got to be able to field a team, get a coach, and all those things are givens, but you also have to give them the opportunity to grow.

“Part of that growth process is building a foundation, and it’s much like building a house,” Gilbert said. “You’ve got to build a foundation, you’ve got to put the studs up and roof it in, put the sidewalls in and you can’t skip a step. So, as you’re building a new program like lacrosse, we’ve got to go through that same process to help them be competitive.”

Largely, Title IX compliance is showing a long-term dedication to creating opportunities in an equal manner for both sexes through program and team development, scholarship numbers and facility equality.

The addition of women’s lacrosse helped ECU to even that balance between its 20 total sports (11 women’s teams, nine men’s). Playing into the quest for balance, naturally, is monitoring the overall number of scholarships across the board in both genders.

Adding lacrosse meant adding 12 women’s scholarships based on the size of the average team, which is 28. Very few other sports available on the women’s side had comparable numbers or in some cases lacked the facilities and/or growing popularity to establish a team.

In a statement to The Reflector on Friday, ECU said the university “works to continuously monitor and ensure athletics compliance with Title IX,” referencing the law’s three prongs of compliance. Schools must fully adhere to at least one of them.

Three prongs

The first prong, often called proportionality, determines simply whether or not there is a reasonable balance in participation opportunities between males and females based on their respective enrollments. The second determines, in cases where one sex is underrepresented among college athletes, whether the institution can “show a history and continuing practice of program expansion which is demonstrably responsive to the developing interests and abilities of the members of that sex” and expanding opportunities that are reflective of their interests and abilities. When that history cannot be shown, the third prong asks that the school prove that “the interests and abilities of the members of that sex have been fully and effectively accommodated by the present program.”

“Most recently, ECU engaged in program expansion by adding the sport of women’s lacrosse, creating new, additional intercollegiate opportunities for women,” the ECU statement said. “There was a demonstrated interest in the sport among female students, which was reflected in a strong intramural program.”

Women’s lacrosse was the first new team for the Pirates since the dawn of the new millennium, when they added women’s golf in 2000. Before that, it was women’s soccer in 1994.

Since that time, ECU also has eliminated a sport, excising men’s soccer in 2006, though at the time AD Terry Holland said it was due to the team no longer being financially viable and not specifically because of Title IX concerns. It nonetheless helped to strike the needed balance once again.

At the time, Holland noted a two-month evaluation had run concurrently with the search for a new coach, which was largely fruitless.

"In our discussions with coaching candidates, it became clear that a significant increase in resources would have to be made available to men's soccer to improve our competitive position in Conference USA," Holland said when announcing the decision. "The only source for the needed resources would be from the budgets of our other programs, and we do not feel that any of our programs could withstand a significant budget reduction without an equally significant loss of competitiveness for the team(s) involved. It has become obvious to us that our current strategy (in men’s soccer) has been largely ineffective in terms of on-field performance. Of even greater concern is the record against our conference opponents during a total of 23 years in the Colonial and C-USA."

While for many, the disappearance of a losing team might soon be forgotten, it does make an impact, particularly for youth and scholastic players that now have little or no connection, relationship or possible recruiting pipeline to a college-level team.

Win or lose, Greenville has experienced America’s greatest soccer boom over the last decade without a men’s college team.

“It hurts the culture of soccer that we have here,” J.H. Rose boys’ soccer coach Sam Lee said. “Any of my guys that come through that want to go to the next level don’t really have the resources or the knowledge or really what they should do or be trying to do ... to play at the next level.

“Soccer is constantly growing, especially in eastern North Carolina and especially on the boys’ side.”

Lee said team membership and tryout attendance has steadily grown in his time at Rose.

Women in sports

A 1978 cover of Time Magazine with the headline “Women in sports” shows a women’s lacrosse player in action, and the story inside largely focused on what it described as the immediate effects of Title IX since its inception six years previous, not the least of which was a massive increase in high school girls playing sports. It also noted that N.C. State had tripled its women’s athletics budget in that time.

According to a 2017 update of that story in Time celebrating 45 years of Title IX, “The impact of the amendment is still being felt — according to the NCAA, in the 2015-16 academic year, 211,886 women participated in college sports in the U.S., representing a 25 percent increase over the previous decade.”

A story published in The Atlantic in 2015 partly backs up the success of the law in its fifth decade, noting that Title IX has helped lead to a record-high of 3.27 million female high school athletes, and that “about two in five girls participate in high school varsity sports, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.”

The story goes on to detail, however, some of the perceived negative effects of the law, which include disadvantages for some male athletes and new sets of challenges and risks for women. It also shows that many states that still have eye-opening sports gender gaps in their high schools and that more than 25 percent of the nation’s schools could still be in violation of Title IX.

While North Carolina is not in the worst percentile for continued inequality, it is not far off, falling into the range of a 30- to 49-percent gender gap in favor of males.

There is no way to predict the trends or coming changes, but Gilbert knows staying on top of Title IX means being able to expect the unexpected.

“I think it’s all tied together when you look at the rapid change of intercollegiate athletics,” he said. “Who thought two or three years ago that there would be cost of attendance money (being paid to all student-athletes)? Years ago, kids used to get $15 for laundry money, and that’s gone away. Now we’ve swung open this door, so it’s constantly evolving and I think there are a bunch of dynamics at play to determine what our sports programs are, and I’m talking about nationally, not just at ECU. Where are they? What direction are they headed in? Conference alignment, all these things can play a factor in what we have and what we don’t have.”

Contact Nathan Summers at nsummers@reflector.com, 252-329-9595 and follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.

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