The college athlete endorsement debate is welcome. But don’t undermine gains made by women

Congress should reject proposals that would upend revenue-sharing model that many female and male athletes rely on

Gonzaga’s Louise Forsyth, left, and Portland’s Jayce Gorzeman battle for a loose ball at the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas in 2020. Title IX’s gains for women playing non-revenue college sports have been hard-fought, Nevarez writes. (Robert Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images file photo)
Gonzaga’s Louise Forsyth, left, and Portland’s Jayce Gorzeman battle for a loose ball at the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas in 2020. Title IX’s gains for women playing non-revenue college sports have been hard-fought, Nevarez writes. (Robert Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images file photo)
Posted March 10, 2021 at 7:00am

It’s Women’s History Month and almost every night on your TV, you can watch young women making history on the hardwood. The televised chase for the national championship in women’s basketball proves the role of sports in the drive for equity —and Congress should pay attention.

As collegians battle for trophies this spring, our leaders in Washington are debating legislation that will have lasting impact on the future of college athletics. It is critical that lawmakers take care to make sure that new policies do not undermine the gains female athletes have made under Title IX.

The congressional debate about expanding the economic rights of student-athletes offers great promise, and as a former scholarship athlete, I hope Congress will advance legislation that would empower all student-athletes to have more control over their ability to monetize their market value through endorsements.

As commissioner of the West Coast Conference, home not only to the nation’s top-ranked men’s team – undefeated Gonzaga – but also of the No. 16 women’s team, I urge Congress to reject misguided proposals that would upend the collegiate model that provides opportunity to 80,000 female athletes per year in sports that cost more than the revenue they generate.

In the early 1970s, female participation in college sports was less than one-sixth the participation rate for males. By the time the NCAA began staging championships for women, male athletes on campuses still outnumbered female athletes 2-to-1. Even today, compliance with Title IX remains a challenge, with 87 percent of NCAA schools offering disproportionately higher rates of athletic opportunities to male athletes compared to their enrollment, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Giving student-athletes the ability to seek third-party payment for licensing their name, image and likeness, or NIL, can help female and male athletes alike. But some in Congress seek to go further than NIL — and that’s where Washington should be careful. One legislative proposal suggests forcing universities to pay salaries to football and men’s basketball players using 50 percent of the money their sports generate. That idea would upend our revenue-sharing model and be disastrous for women’s sports.

The West Coast Conference, of which I am proud to serve as commissioner, sponsors 15 sports at 10 institutions. We’ve won nine national championships in soccer and six in tennis, but America knows us best for men’s basketball. The revenue our men’s basketball teams generate pays the lion’s share of the cost of every other opportunity we provide in every other sport. When you watch Gonzaga’s men win this winter, the advertising dollars from those commercial breaks is providing not only the scholarships for the men on the court, but for the other non-revenue men’s and women’s teams that you don’t see.

The economic reality is that the only sports that generate net revenue consistently in college athletics are football and men’s basketball — and revenue sharing from those sports fund scholarships, training, mentoring, world-class coaching, technology, health and wellness, and championship competition for female and male athletes in every other sport.

These non-revenue sports already exist economically on a knife’s edge. Pressure from the effects of the pandemic have caused 30 Division I programs to eliminate over 100 athletics teams. Should Congress cut off the revenue sharing that sustains sports outside the two moneymakers, many more teams and their scholarships will disappear.

Title IX’s gains for women playing non-revenue sports have been hard-fought in the legal and policy arenas, and college athletics has only gotten more popular. Now, as a result, female athletes share in the financial success of their colleges’ powerful athletic brands. Congress should protect those gains.

Lawmakers should also take into account the disparate impact that misguided legislation would have on Division I universities with leaner athletic budgets. Currently, the NCAA and member conferences are being sued for even contemplating rules changes to allow NIL payments. These suits seek to upend the student-athlete model that is definitional for college athletics and if successful, they would cause some universities in conferences like the West Coast Conference to reconsider whether to even field scholarship sports at all.

Reducing college athletics to just a few universities with powerhouse brands would be a step backward — and Congress should provide the narrow legal protection from anti-trust lawsuits needed to prevent that from happening as an unintended consequence of its adoption of national NIL rules.

College athletics provides life-changing opportunities to a wide and diverse group of students. Policymakers should make sure that new federal laws governing college athletics protect those gains even as we open new opportunities.

Gloria Nevarez is the commissioner of the West Coast Conference. She is the first Latinx head of an NCAA Division I conference and a former scholarship basketball player at the University of Massachusetts.