Donna de Varona of the Womens Sports Foundation. (Medium)BY TOM SLEAR//


Hard to believe, with women now outnumbering men four to three in college swimming, that there was a time not too long ago when female college swimmers (or females in any college sport, for that matter) were about as rare as summer snowstorms.

The 1972 gender equity law, Title IX, prompted the metamorphosis, but real change took years, and came about only with sustained advocacy of former athletes such as Donna de Varona.

Before she was 18, De Varona had two Olympic gold medals and world records many times over in the individual medleys.  Her picture had appeared on the cover of several national magazines.  She was attractive and well spoken, a natural draw for the television cameras that were becoming ubiquitous in sports venues.

And yet, the one thing De Varona wanted most – to continue swimming – was out of reach.  She remembers climbing the 10-meter tower in Tokyo in 1964 following her last Olympic competition.  Looking down at the pool with her legs dangling over the edge of the platform, she wondered, “What now?”

Her time in the water was done.  She understood that.  But what about the next generation of female athletes?  Could she make a difference? 

Over the ensuing 50 years, De Varona promoted one agenda after another, nearly all connected in some way to expanding the opportunities for women in sports.  She was the first president of the Women’s Sports Foundation.  She took a break from her broadcasting career to help draft the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which imposed order on the mess that passed for governance of amateur sports.  (It also created USA Swimming.)

And she’s been involved from the beginning with Title IX.  At first her efforts were uniformly applauded.  But eventually the realization set in that gender equity as applied to college sports was a zero sum game.  The women gained at the expense of the men.  Since 1982, the number of female college swimmers has doubled while the number of men has increased a mere 25 percent, and nearly all of that in non-scholarship Division III.  In Division I, the women have doubled while the men have decreased.  The same is true in most other Olympic sports.

The pushback grew strident, yet De Varona never wavered.  She admits she took some hits, but she counters with same argument that she has touted from the beginning.  The issue isn’t gender equity, but equitable distribution of resources, and it won’t be settled until the prolific spending on college football and men’s basketball is reigned in.

“I think women will lose some of what they have gained, and men, too,” she says.  “It’s absurd that there are over 100 members on a college football team.  That there are air-conditioned, indoor practice facilities, or that a football team has a new uniform every game for promotional purposes.  This is all about money – mostly football – and it’s out of whack.”

De Varona envisions a future of college programs stripped to the bone.  There will be football and men’s basketball, and enough women’s teams to satisfy Title IX.  In her mind, this model will be the only way to satisfy the unrestrained greed that has overtaken college sports. 

“We have had progress in gender equity, and there has been a mind-set change in this country with women’s athletics,” she says, “but my concerns transcend gender equity.  The real issue is the big-time business of basketball and football on our college campuses.”

The future?

“A train wreck.  If we don’t look at this sporting environment in its entirety, the compromises will come in all Olympic sports, men and women.” 

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