Title Ix 25 Years Later -- Minority Women Worry About Which Sports Get Support

After years of struggling on the front line of the women's movement, after eventually reaping monumental gains in sports, Bev Kearney finds herself in an unsettling position.

She has footholds in two conflicting worlds.

In one, Kearney has achieved success with the help of precedent-setting decisions promoting women's athletics. She is the first woman elected president of the national college Track Coaches Association and is considered one of the country's premier coaches.

In the other, Kearney, who is also the first African American to lead the track-coaches association, is disturbed by a subject not openly discussed in the national debate on gender equity - race.

The silence is resulting in growing tension among African-American women who see race as the unwanted stepchild in the fight for equal rights on the playing fields.

"They try to keep the issues separate but they are one and the same," said Kearney, University of Texas track-and-field coach who recently was named co-coach of the year.

At issue are the kinds of college sports being introduced in the name of gender equity - golf, gymnastics, rowing, soccer, tennis and water polo. In the U.S., these sports usually favor participants of some means. In the racial divide of America, that often translates to mean those from suburban white neighborhoods.

"Crew is an elitist sport," said Rutgers' Vivian Stringer, one of the country's most-respected basketball coaches. "How many black females are going to get exposed to it?"

Teresa Edwards, four-time U.S. Olympic basketball player from Georgia, said it is difficult to encourage minority youngsters to try these sports.

"These are money sports," she said. "You can't pick them up at the local rec department."

With the changing landscape, participants of "money sports" probably have a better chance at earning college scholarships and, later making coaching a career.

Few black women coaches

In the past decade, about 1,000 head-coaching positions have been added for women's sports, yet only a third of them went to women, fewer still to minority women, according to Robertha Abney, associate athletics director of Slippery Rock (Pa.) University, who has charted hiring practices.

In a '96 survey, Abney found African-American women were underrepresented in all coaching and athletics-administrative categories save one: assistant coaches for women's basketball.

"Title IX has really helped white women," said Tina Sloan Green, executive director of the Black Women in Sport Foundation. "Things haven't changed much for African-American women."

According to NCAA data, the majority of female African-American college athletes participate in track and field and in basketball. In 1995, 3,591 female African-American athletes - about 15 percent - received financial aid, out of 23,871 women receiving help.

The 15 percent represents a higher number than the nation's overall African-American population of about 12 percent. But there's concern, because only 20 percent of those black women athletes getting aid participated in sports other than basketball or track.

Charles Farrell, executive director of the Sports Prospectus International Institute at American University in Washington, D.C., said that percentage will only get smaller as emerging women's sports - such as golf, rowing and water polo - grow.

Although basketball's popularity is increasing with the recent introduction of two fledgling women's professional leagues, the popularity of track and field is declining. Some African-American track coaches worry that scholarships in their sports will be reduced or given instead to athletes in the "money sports," a change that would decrease minority opportunities, they say.

"Two different issues"

Donna Lopiano, Women's Sports Foundation executive director, shakes her head at such dissent.

"They are two different issues," she said. "They don't play on the same fields. You shouldn't say girls shouldn't play sports because women of color aren't playing. What are they doing about sports segregation for men?"

Her answer is "not much," although a majority of major-college football scholarships have gone to minorities. Lopiano says it is important to attack each issue fervently - but separately. That would satisfy African-American women if they believed Title IX advocates would continue the effort for ethnic equity once gender equity was achieved.

One of the biggest concerns is what happens after college, when minority female athletes apply for coaching positions. Sloan Green, a physical-education professor, coached lacrosse at Temple University for 20 years.

During her tenure, she was the only African-American lacrosse coach in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I - the group's largest 300 schools. Karen Dennis of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the only African-American woman who coaches track in the 16-school Western Athletic Conference.

Edwards, a player-coach of the Atlanta Glory of the new American Basketball League, said African-American players can't help but notice.

Dennis worries fewer minorities will be recruited to participate in the emerging sports without more coaches of color.

"White coaches are less inclined to go to the inner-city areas," she said. "Maybe they are afraid to go there. You don't see a lot of minorities on softball teams and this is a sport kids play."

Farrell said the problem is institutionalization. The emerging women's sports have been governed, coached and played by whites for so long, he said, "I don't think they ever talked about including African-Americans."

Today, these minority leaders are promoting integration in the traditionally white sports. Farrell says where there is opportunity for athletes of color, there is success.

His statement is borne out in the city of Commerce near Los Angeles, which has one of the West Coast's best indoor public swimming pools. Female competitors from the Commerce swim team are excelling at Bell-Gardens High School, a heavily Latino school with some of the country's best women water-polo players.

Brenda Villa and Liz Garcia, strong candidates to make the 2000 Olympics if women's water polo is sanctioned, have changed the notion of a sport once the province of white, upper-middle-class boys. The Latina players have helped the boys team become one of the area's best in the past five years.

"You just have to give them a chance," said Bob Greenamyer, Bell-Gardens coach.

Bev Kearney could not agree more, a quarter-century after being among the first women to receive a scholarship at Auburn University in the aftermath of Title IX.

Her only hope is other African-American women will be afforded the same opportunity.