Lou Hoover’s Push for “Honest Play”

DePaul beat Duke, 74-65, in the Sweet Sixteen. James Madison plays Texas A&M tonight -the game airs at 9:45 p.m. Notre Dame faces off with Oklahoma State on March 29.

No, I didn’t wander into some fantasy basketball tournament. I’m pulling the stats from the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament brackets.

Over the years, women’s basketball has gained increasing attention. Chalk it up to Title IX funds and the push for more equality between men’s and women’s sports in funding college athletics. However, the odds that women’s collegiate sports will ever be on par with men’s collegiate sports are long. “Odds” being one of the operative words here.

Some scholars of women’s sports place blame for the second-rate status of female sports teams on the shoulders Lou_Hooverof Lou Henry Hoover, the nation’s first lady from 1929-1933. Lou’s impact on women’s athletics occurred before she entered the White House. Lou had established a national reputation by 1918 for her interest in promoting the intellectual, emotional, and physical development of young women. The Girl Scouts of America helped her establish her early platform. But Lou’s organizational skills and the national network of contacts that she had established over the years through her fund-raising work with the Committee for the Relief of Belgium had established her as a formidable organizer. When the National Amateur Athletic Federation (NAAF) was founded in 1923, Lou was named vice-president. Lou was the only female officer, and she formed the Women’s Division within the NAAF.

Lou made it clear from the outset that the purpose of the NAAF was to promote physical activity for all college students, and especially for women. She effectively discouraged the creation of women’s sports teams where the inter-collegiate play might take on the characteristics that were already then common to collegiate men’s sports.

The NAAF’s organizing conference, held in April 1923 , voted to condemn the exploitation of young women  “for the enjoyment of the spectator or for the athletic reputation of or commercial advantage of any school or other organization.” The NAAF  criticized “the emphasis which is laid at present upon the individual accomplishment and the winning of championships.”

Lou was adamant about the focus of the NAAF: “It is to stress the play spirit in athletics rather than the highly competitive attitude which makes championships and records the goal. It is to protect girls’ sports from commercialization and exploitation.”

Her words could still apply today. A post on the website PolicyMic (Here’s How Many Billions…) observes that while college players make zero dollars, the NCAA is raking it in. In April, 2010, the NCAA signed a 14-year contract with CBS and Turner Sports for television rights that total $10.8B over the life of the contract. That money will get divvied up among the NCAA’s teams according to their records – obviously pressuring schools to produce winning teams in order to get a larger share of the revenue pie.  Advertising provides another revenue stream. The average cost for a 2013 NCAA men’s tournament ad was $1.42M for a 30-second spot. (See CNN’s NCAA Tournament Fast Facts.)

Then there is the wagering. Legal wagering is estimated at between $90-$100M. Illegal wagering, including ubiquitous office pools, is placed at $2.5B. Women’s basketball is not exempt from odds-making, but the payout is significantly less. But the larger issue is whether or not we are watching a clean game, or a game where players will shave points or refs will overlook (or make excessive) calls. While the NCAA has very strict penalties for point shaving and referee misconduct, the amount of money that stands to be gained if the game is won (or lost) by a certain team  always raises the question about possible fixing. (See The Atlantic’s blogpost on “Is March Madness a Sporting Event.”)

Even with their increasing competitiveness, women are faring better than their male counterparts in the world of college basketball. Eighty-seven percent of women players will graduate, as opposed to 72 percent of the men. Twenty-one women’s basketball teams have a 100 percent graduation rate.  Race is a factor, too. There is a five-point disparity between the graduation rates of white and African-American female players, and that difference is declining. On the other hand, the gap between white and African-American male players’ graduation rates is 24 points.  (See “Women’s NCAA tourney graduation rates.”) The NCAA has raised its requirement for schools to improve the average graduation rates of their athletes, but raising the standard does nothing to address the underlying problem that athletes, and especially male basketball players, are exploited by their schools and the public. That’s thanks to the money to be made by the NCAA, the colleges, the bookies, and the bettors. Not to mention the “one and done” rule that allows a male player to be eligible for the NBA after one year of college play (but that is a post for another day).

And we will forgo discussion of coaches’ salaries, endorsement revenues, and other non-financial perks that accrue to the winning teams.

Lou Hoover would likely have very much the same thing to say today as she said in 1923. Although I suspect she would advocate for college athletics that protected both girls’ and boys’ sports from commercialization and exploitation.