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Forty years later, the NCAA’s takeover from the AIAW still isn’t perfect

‘Has the NCAA taking women’s sports from the AIAW been helpful? Yes. Is it where it needs to be? No.’

I don’t believe in citing history for history’s sake. There has to be a reason for celebrating anniversaries and the reason must be connected to the here and now.

For example, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the 1972 legislation that prohibited sex discrimination by colleges that receive federal funds and therefore required them to conduct women’s intercollegiate athletic programs equal to their men’s programs.

Title IX was the key that unlocked a door of opportunity for generations of women because it forced the male-dominated NCAA to offer greater opportunities for women in educational activities, including intercollegiate athletics.

“Title IX forced a lot of change,” University of Virginia athletic director Carla Williams told me earlier this week.

Williams attended the University of Georgia on an athletic scholarship, played basketball and eventually built a career in athletics administration. In 2017, Williams became the first Black female athletic director at a Power 5 member school.

“If it wasn’t for Title IX, would I be here? I don’t think so,” she said. “I wouldn’t have gone to college.”

Past connects to present.

But as the women’s Final Four begins in Minneapolis on Friday, the more compelling — and relevant — milestone is the 40th anniversary of the NCAA taking control of women’s championships away from the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).

This anniversary echoes across generations, for it asks the core question of whether a male-dominated institution like the NCAA can truly value women like women value women. Or will it do so only when forced? And given enough time, what does progress look like?

“No one wants to legislate morality — people should do things because it’s the right thing to do,” Williams said. “But there are times when policy and law are necessary for change when it won’t happen any other way.”

University of Virginia athletic director Carla Williams, the first Black female athletic director at a Power 5 school: “Title IX forced a lot of change.”

Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

In one sense, the 40th anniversary is a celebration of how women’s basketball under NCAA jurisdiction has provided unprecedented opportunities and greater visibility. But the anniversary also tells a familiar story of how an organization run primarily by white men used power and money to enhance its brand, make it compliant with the law and put a potential competitor out of business. The brand was basketball, the competitor was the AIAW. 

For decades, women were invisible as athletic entities to the NCAA. While men enjoyed a robust menu of athletics, especially football and basketball, women languished.

“It [women’s sports] was like a little sister that you want to ignore. And all of a sudden, they had to think about us because of this law.”

— Former Texas star Fran Harris on the impact of Title IX

Finally, in 1971, a group of women who were physical education leaders formed the AIAW — an association for women by women. Women assumed leadership positions as head coaches and athletics directors. The AIAW filled a need and membership grew: 280 colleges and universities became charter members of the AIAW, and the organization held 41 championships in 19 sports by the 1981-82 school year.

But thanks to Title IX, the well-heeled NCAA was required to provide the same opportunities for women that it had for men, and the NCAA began laying the foundation to take over hosting championships in women’s sports.   

“It meant that athletics, which had been run by men predominantly for ages, all of a sudden had to think about us,” former University of Texas star Fran Harris said during a phone interview. Harris was captain of the 1986 Texas women’s basketball team that went 34-0, the first women’s team to go undefeated. “It was like a little sister that you want to ignore. And all of a sudden, they had to think about us because of this law.”

Resistance to the NCAA was fierce among many AIAW members. Some saw the NCAA’s incursion as the beginning of the end of women’s control over women’s athletics. 

“They thought, ‘We have a pretty good thing going, and now here comes the NCAA and they’re going to take it,’ ” Geno Auriemma, the legendary women’s basketball coach at the University of Connecticut, said during a recent interview.

At the time of the NCAA takeover, Auriemma was an assistant women’s coach at the University of Virginia. He knew how many of the women felt. “ ‘They’re going to run with it and we’re going to lose our own identity, we’re going to lose what we had, and we’re not going to be able to control our own destiny.’ That really bothered a lot of people,” he said.

In 1982 — 76 years after its founding — the NCAA began holding championships for women. Many women who had leadership roles on their campus under the AIAW were demoted once the NCAA took over. Williams saw that happen at the University of Georgia to one of her mentors, Liz Murphey. Murphey was the women’s athletic director when Georgia was under AIAW jurisdiction. When the NCAA took over, Murphey was knocked down to assistant athletic director.

Auriemma said he welcomed the shift from AIAW to the NCAA. 

“Me being relatively new and much more of a risk-taker, I was excited that the NCAA was taking over,” he said. “I thought of the opportunities that could exist, expanding the reach of the game, expanding the audience for the game. I understood exactly what people were feeling, and thinking, I also understood the potential. I was on the side of risk-taking.”

Some schools maintained dual membership in the AIAW and the NCAA. Some had to choose.

C. Vivian Stringer, the Hall of Fame coach at Rutgers, was the 34-year-old head coach at Cheyney State, a historically Black college in Pennsylvania. Stringer reluctantly chose the NCAA when she decided her team would compete in the NCAA championship in 1982, when her team faced Louisiana Tech for the first women’s national championship.

Stringer said she would rather have played for the AIAW title, but economics dictated otherwise.

“Quite honestly, I would have preferred to play in the AIAW with Texas and Rutgers,” she said in a 2020 interview. “But the problem was that there, you would have to pay your own way. Cheyney was a poor school. We didn’t have any money. But my allegiance was to the AIAW, because they were the ones who sponsored tournaments all along. They have given recognition and rise to us.”

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said when the NCAA took over women’s championships in 1982, money and diversity soon followed. “Women’s basketball, at the high school level, at the college level, was a white girl’s game. … Now, suddenly anybody could play.”

G Fiume/Getty Images

The NCAA had economic muscle. This is a familiar theme in all sports takeovers — whether it was Major League Baseball eventually putting Negro League Baseball out of business, or previously segregated college sports programs permanently crippling historically Black colleges and universities by recruiting talent that used to attend Black schools, to cite two examples.

Eventually, more than 120 large schools switched from the AIAW to the NCAA and the AIAW stopped operations in 1982. After the AIAW unsuccessfully pursued a federal antitrust suit against the NCAA, the AIAW ceased to exist on June 30, 1983.

“Opportunities were created that opened up a whole new world for a lot of people. Were some people hurt by those decisions? Yes. That’s always the case. People want progress but they don’t want change.”

— UConn head coach Geno Auriemma on the impact of the NCAA taking over the women’s collegiate championships from the AIAW

Forty years later, the NCAA’s treatment of all women is uneven. On the surface, all seems well, especially compared to where women were in 1982. For example, Auriemma said that when the NCAA took over and elevated the visibility of women’s basketball, money followed and so did more Black players.

“Women’s basketball, at the high school level, at the college level, was a white girl’s game,” Auriemma said. “You were white with a ponytail; you were a basketball player or a volleyball player. The game was closed, to a certain extent. 

“All of a sudden shoe companies came in, all this money started being pumped into the AAU programs, travel programs. Now, suddenly anybody could play. You didn’t have to pay to play. That opened up a whole new world and now girls’ basketball becomes huge at the high school and college level.”

He added: “Opportunities were created that opened up a whole new world for a lot of people. Were some people hurt by those decisions? Yes. That’s always the case. People want progress but they don’t want change.”

But even as recently as last year, the NCAA was engulfed in a controversy over inequity that confirmed what critics have said all along.  

In March 2021, Sedona Prince, a player for the University of Oregon women’s basketball team, posted a video contrasting the elaborate weightlifting equipment provided for men to the meager weights provided for the women at the start of the tournament. The video went viral and prompted an in-depth investigation into gender inequities within the NCAA.

A subsequent scathing report laid out the NCAA’s systemic sexism in which women were “less than.” Among other things, the report found that women’s basketball is vastly undervalued as a potential moneymaker.

“Has the NCAA taking women’s sports from the AIAW been helpful? Yes,” Williams said. “Is it where it needs to be? No.

“Same thing with the championships. Are they better? Yes. Is it because people were forced to do it? Yes. Whenever you do something you don’t want to do but have to do, I don’t think you give it your full attention.”

Even as the NCAA celebrates the 40th anniversary of hosting women’s championships, female athletes continue to climb a steep mountain. The overarching question is how will the long-standing narrative change that women’s basketball is destined to be a perennial money loser even as the women’s tournament is more popular than ever?

“The steep mountain will always be there,” said Ying Wushanley, an associate professor at Millersville (Pennsylvania) University and the author of Playing Nice and Losing: The Struggle for Control of Women’s Intercollegiate Athletics, 1960-2000. “Twenty years from now it’ll be much closer; the gap is narrowing. But there will still be a significant gap for the foreseeable future.”

Perhaps the mountain will not be as steep at places like South Carolina, thanks to coach Dawn Staley, and Stanford, thanks to coach Tara VanDerveer, and at the University of Connecticut.

When I asked Auriemma if he expected his successor to be a woman, he said: “Absolutely. I don’t think there’ll be a guy coaching in this spot ever again. Not at my school.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.