The gender-equity issue in college athletics, so often reduced to a standoff between women's sports and football, will see the battle drawn along those lines more fiercely than ever later this month.
The biggest and brightest red flag waved by Title IX proponents - 85 football scholarships - will be under attack when the NCAA Di-vi-sion I Management Council meets July 27-29 in Philadelphia. One option: eliminating up to 10 of those football grants.
If the Council, consisting of 34 athletic administrators and faculty members, formally proposes a cut in I-A football scholarships from 85 to 75, the backlash could cause serious strife among the membership. Any proposal would be open for 60 days of membership comment before the Council could forward it to the Division I Board of Directors for ratification. The Board (15 university presidents) likely wouldn't address it before January.
Even so, the possibility of a cut has the football community hunkering down.
"Football has been cut and cut and cut," said Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley, chair of the NCAA Football Rules Committee. "Football has gone from 120 to 105 to 95 to 85 in my experience. I felt like the last time was sort of bare bone. Anything else, I think, would really hurt game, hurt what we've got going. For many of us, (football) is just absolutely the economic engine that drives the athletic department. It's got to go, and it's got to be attractive. Based on my experience, (cutting) would be a bad mistake."
Added Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger, "I am unalterably opposed to cutting football scholarships. Let us not continue to reduce male athletic opportunities financially or otherwise in the name of gender-equity. Let's add sports for women."
Predictably, albeit no less passionately, women's sports advocates insist football can survive quite nicely with fewer scholarships. There is no comparable women's sport to football in terms of scholarship numbers, which upsets the balance inherent in Title IX, the federal law requiring equal treatment for men and women.
Efforts to comply have focused largely on either eliminating men's sports such as wrestling and swimming or adding new women's sports while the football total generally remained sacrosanct.
"I don't think it's a drastic measure at all (to cut football scholarships)," said Deborah Brake, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center, which last year filed Title IX complaints with the Office of Civil Rights against 25 schools as a symbolic gesture for the 25th anniversary of the law.
"I'm sure the football coaches would give you a different opinion. But they screamed bloody murder when they went from to 95 and then to 85, and the world never fell apart."
Cutting scholarships to 75 is just one of several options forwarded to the Management Council by the NCAA Financial Aid Committee after a meeting in early June. The Management Council had directed the committee to explore ways to address Title IX issues, primarily in response to the complaint against those 25 schools.
Another option could be just as dramatic: reducing scholarships to 75 but allowing teams to spread that money among 95 players. It would be the first time partial scholarships were introduced into I-A football. Other sports spread scholarships among several players.