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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Student Papers
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Sub-Mergent Power: Struggles for Equality under the AIAW/NCAA Merger

Sarah Katz

In any movement by a marginalized social group to gain equal rights and recognition, there are always several factions with differing opinions of the best way to achieve the common goal. There are those who choose to work within the rules of the system as is it is already structured by the dominant social group, and there are those who choose to create their own branch, rewriting the rules to represent their own philosophies. Historically, women's athletics have been led by the second camp; by women who demanded a philosophy of sport with a vision unique from that of men?s athletics. Women's athletics remained, much like women as a social group, in its own separate sphere, leading its own organizational structure. But as the women's sphere was de-mystified (Spears, 1978) in the mid twentieth century, autonomous organizational structures were absorbed under the umbrella of formerly exclusively male athletics. This is the case as illustrated by the merger of the AIAW and the NCAA.

On the surface, it may appear that full official inclusion of women's athletics into the structure of the patriarchy would bring primarily positive results such as increased funding and greater access to facilities. However, the present, past, and future ramifications of the merger are tangled in a web of political and social significance that is not so simple to label as all positive or all negative for the advancement of women's athletics and Feminism at large.

I will briefly trace the history that led to the creation of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) as described by Joan Hult in 'The Story of Women's Athletics: Manipulating a Dream 1890-1985,' and then examine some of the pros and cons of the AIAW's 1981 merger with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Hult explains that in the era between 1890-1920, women physical educators were a tightly knit, dedicated group committed to a tradition of restricted competition, self-governance, and a feminine approach to individual and team sports. They believed that all girls and women should have the opportunity to participate and enjoy sport, not only the talented elite as in the competition-driven male philosophical structure (87). Play-days and sport-days with emphasis on team building games were a means of perpetuating an image of an ideal American female athlete: feminine, beautiful, strong, yet always 'aware of her delicate reproductive system' (89).

Seventy-five years later, though much had changed, the AIAW still adhered to a more fundamental interpretation of the original philosophy of women's athletics. It focused on a student-centered, education-oriented model that would avoid difficulties experienced by the male model from its emphasis on winning, money, and scholarships and recruitment. The AIAW maintained control over all athletic programs at member institutions as opposed to the NCAA, which was involved only in championships. As Hult writes: 'The specially designed women's model held to a vision of student first, athlete second and emphasized the sporting experience rather than the outcome on the scoreboard and the resulting commercialization? (97).

Then came Title IX. Perhaps the single most important piece of legislation for women's sport, Title IX demanded equal funding, access and opportunity for women's and girl's athletics. However, by bringing women's athletics officially into the male-dominated power structure, it shook the alternative model the AIAW had worked to create, indirectly undermining, (while at the same time recognizing and affirming) all they had done. By 1981, the AIAW was no longer, and the majority of the leadership roles held by women, including a large percentage of coaching positions, were replaced by men as the NCAA absorbed the AIAW.

In Jean Rowlands's 1988 address at Middlebury College, she specifies the numerous accomplishments of the AIAW in the 1970s, most notably creating 41 national championships in 19 sports, and landing a four-year TV contract with NBC. In a span of ten years, the AIAW did arguably more to carve a space for women's athletics in the Establishment than the NCAA has in twenty. Though the merge of the AIAW and the NCAA brought immediate loss of women's positions of power and may have disrupted the original vision the AIAW had for women's athletics, there is yet another side to consider.

There comes a time in a movement when, in order to fully be considered on equal footing, the marginalized group must begin to advocate for itself directly within the dominant structure. Which is to say, if the AIAW and its foremothers laid the essential groundwork for the legitimacy of women's athletics, perhaps now it is time to raise the bar. Instead of making our own rules, thereby enforcing our marginalized 'other' status, maybe now it is time to undertake the task of fundamentally altering the rules as they have been set. To play within the game, so to speak, so that one day, women's athletics can be a full and equal partner to men's athletics, under a common vision of sport that reflects a unified sphere and a flexible interpretation of gender constructs.

Perhaps initially the AIAW/NCAA merger was a significant step backward, but it may also have the potential for a larger step forward for women's athletics.

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