In the early 1990s, when Shaney Fink was a student-athlete at the University of California-Berkeley, the athletic department was split in two. One department exclusively served the men’s teams. The “other” was for women, and like virtually all major college institutions of that era, Cal’s women’s department was mostly a bare-bones operation.
There might have been one or two female administrators involved in campus athletics back then, as Fink recalled, and female student-athletes were generally supposed to be grateful for the resources they had, as limited as they were.
Three decades later, Fink is now the athletic director at Seattle University — among the few women in that role across Division I athletics — and her experiences as an athlete, coach and longtime administrator have shaped her vision of creating a diverse and inclusive athletic department.
She’s quick to point out that, beyond her job, several other high-level athletic department positions that have historically been reserved for men — head of facilities and operations, head strength coach, head athletic trainer and head of sports information among them — are roles held by women at Seattle U.
“That leadership is really important,” she said. “It gives our student-athletes — all of our student-athletes — a chance to connect with and get used to leaders who are women.”
Title IX, the landmark legislation that bans discrimination based on sex in educational programs receiving federal funding, marks its 50th anniversary today. It’s an occasion worth celebrating, Fink said, for the advancements it spurred in women’s athletics.
But the anniversary, she added, should also serve as a reminder of the gap that still exists in gender equity throughout college athletics.
Not including football, the 107 public universities in the top division of college athletics spend significantly more on men’s teams for recruiting, equipment and travel than they do for similar women’s teams, according to a USA Today analysis of expenses from 2018-20. For every dollar spent on men’s programs, schools spent just 71 cents on women’s programs in the same categories, the study showed.
The disparity hit home for many during the 2021 NCAA basketball tournaments.
Images posted on social media revealed the vast differences in the weight room offerings for women compared with men. As a result, the NCAA commissioned a gender-equity commission to review operations of the tournaments, and among other changes, the NCAA increased its investment in the women’s tournament and branded it “March Madness” — as it long has for the men — for the first time this year.
It was a small victory in a continuing push for women to gain equal footing.
“It’s a journey, and we’re not there yet,” said Erin O’Connell, the University of Washington’s deputy athletic director and senior woman administrator. “I am incredibly interested in what that next iteration will be in all this for women’s athletics.”
Women make up roughly half of all college athletes, but just 15% of Division I athletic directors are women.
“Cultural and societal bias drives much of the inequity in college athletics,” Patti Phillips, the CEO of Women Leaders in College Sports, wrote recently for USA Today. “… In this traditionally male-dominated culture, institutions are often reticent to change for fear of alienating sponsors and donor bases, and as a result, impacting women’s advancement.”
Football and men’s basketball remain the revenue-driving forces behind major-college athletics.
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament last year fetched a new media-rights deal worth $11.4 billion from CBS and Turner broadcasting through 2032 — that’s $770 million per year. ESPN, meanwhile, pays about $34 million per year to broadcast the NCAA women’s basketball tournament (in a deal that includes more than two dozen other NCAA championship events).
In her role, Fink said she “absolutely” feels a sense of obligation to push for greater gender equity — for greater equity for anyone who might be underrepresented or marginalized. Her goal, she said, is for Seattle U “to be an example of gender equity and inclusive excellence.”
The juggling act with that inside many athletic departments is trying to achieve those equity gains while, in Seattle U’s case, maintaining a healthy men’s basketball program. Or, for UW’s case, a profitable football team.
That can lead to deeper questions about how particular schools define success: Is it solely on wins and losses? Are revenues the bottom line? And how does each school place a value on an individual student-athlete’s overall experience?
“That’s the challenge with all of this,” Fink said.
“The most important thing,” she continued, “is we have to figure out how to remove barriers and create an environment where you’re not always swimming upstream. It takes so much energy, and if (women) could focus on our sports, if we could focus on our school, and if we could focus on developing as people instead of kind of constantly feeling like we have to swim upstream — that’s where we need to move with this.”
Fink said she’s drawn inspiration from players in the WNBA and the National Women’s Soccer League.
“You think about what those women have taken on, personally, to move through,” she said. “They’ve been fighting so hard for this. And, somehow, that’s our next step — it needs to not just be women fighting for this.”
At UW, O’Connell oversees Title IX compliance as part of what she called her dream job at her alma mater. O’Connell was a coxswain on the Huskies’ rowing team from 1993-96 and later was an assistant coach for seven seasons before shifting into an administrative role.
“I feel an awesome, and almost daunting, sense of responsibility every day getting to come to work here,” she said. “It’s an incredible honor to help our female student-athletes continue to get these experiences. We really are teaching life lessons, as cliché as it sounds. That’s exactly what I got out of it, going back in the mid-’90s. And that’s why I wanted to get into what I’m doing today.”
When O’Connell was a student, the athletic department’s support services — academic tutoring and nutritional programs, in particular — were largely closed off to female athletes. Access to those services for all athletes — whether they’re part of a men’s or women’s team, or a “nonrevenue” team — is open to all now, and that’s one of the more notable advancements over the past 25 years at UW.
“It has definitely evolved, in a good way,” O’Connell said.
As Title IX marks its 50th anniversary, UW is rolling out a series of initiatives starting this week to recognize the occasion and celebrate advancements in its athletic department.
For UW athletics, the key emphasis is “opportunity.” UW said it awarded more athletic scholarships for women than men (excluding football) over the past year.
UW is in the final stages of developing a six-year plan to try to align its women’s athletic scholarship numbers with its undergraduate enrollment for women. Campuswide, women made up 56.4% of all undergraduates and 60% of the freshman class at UW this academic year, according to school records.
Proportionality — aligning athletic scholarships with the overall student body makeup — is one of the three “prongs” of the Title IX compliance, an ambiguous set of guidelines whose enforcement has been criticized for its inconsistency.
The second prong is the expansion of programs for women; the third prong (called “accommodating interests”) boils down to schools showing they are meeting the needs and interests of their students.
O’Connell pointed to the increased investment in beach volleyball — its newest women’s varsity sport, added in 2014 — as a recent example of UW’s ongoing commitment to women’s equity. The new softball indoor facility, paid for by private benefactors at a cost of $5.2 million, is another.
She said UW also continues to monitor the old Title IX “laundry list” of benefits provided to women’s programs, which includes academic support, training, equipment and travel, among other opportunities and services. The Office for Civil Rights no longer requires the laundry list as part of Title IX compliance, but O’Connell said it’s something she feels strongly about.
“We are constantly evaluating everything we’re doing, whether it’s facilities, team travel, operations,” she said. “It just takes constant vigilance.”
The leadership team at UW is also unique with its makeup: O’Connell is one of six women on the athletic department’s eight-member senior executive staff. Athletic director Jen Cohen is one of just five female athletic directors at the 65 Power Five conference schools, and she reports to school president Ana Mari Cauce, the first woman to hold that position in school history.
“We are incredibly proud of that,” O’Connell said, “and we know we have an immense amount of responsibility being role models for our student-athletes.”
And for the next generation coming up, too. That includes O’Connell’s 9-year-old son, Declan.
“You know, it’s pretty profound for me,” O’Connell said. “He was 3 years old when I started in this role, and he is around a lot. He knows Jen well, he knows everyone on our leadership team, and there’s a lot of women there. For him to grow up as a young man and see this, this is totally normalized for him, with so many women at helm of this thing.
“And I just think that’s incredibly cool and so important for him and all his friends to see.”