Investment in and viewership of women’s college sports is at an all-time high. Reaching numbers up to 9.9 million viewers of the NCAA March Madness basketball final, and 92,000 in-person attendees at “Volleyball Day” at the University of Nebraska, both in 2023, more and more people are tuning in to watch women play. Finally, it seems like the eyes of the world are on women's collegiate sports.
But in many cases, just as in professional sports, it seems like the women are playing in the shadow of the men. The NCAA women’s basketball tournament was only permitted to use the branding of “March Madness” beginning in 2021, when the men have been using it since 1939. Facilities, media coverage, overall perceptions, and other endless elements continue to demonstrate persisting inequalities.
In the vast majority of cases, if you search a combination of a sport and a school without specifying the gender playing, the men’s teams will show up first.
However, there are some environments where men are not even in the equation: historically women’s colleges (HWCs) are some of those places. The coverage of these schools in the sporting mainstream is nearly nonexistent, mostly due to the fact that there are no HWCs in the NCAA’s Division I.
But, there are still many all-women’s Division III schools with thriving varsity athletic programs. In the interest of advancing women’s sports across all categories and experiences, the similarities and differences of the sporting experience, perceptions, and culture at a historically women’s college compared to a traditional program are quite notable.
To get a better understanding of this, Women's Sports Exchange's Ana Lise Devery spoke with two athletes at small to mid-sized Division III institutions in the Northeast.
Ana Lise Devery: What is your name, your school, your sport, your role on the team, your major, and a fun fact about you?
Allie Koziarz: Allie Koziarz, I go to Wellesley College, I’m an economics and political science major, and I'm a former member of the basketball team.
Alexa Guedez: My name is Alexa Guedez, I currently go to the State University of New York at Cortland (SUNY), I play volleyball, I’m a middle blocker, and my major is business economics.
AD: What factored into your choice of school and what was the recruitment process like?
AK: I wanted a good academic school, and my recruiting process started in eighth grade doing Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournaments, like club basketball. And then things got weird with COVID-19, so I never actually visited Wellesley or saw the campus before I committed. But I liked the community, academic rigor, and the alumni network. That’s the history of it.
AG: So for me, the main reason I came to Cortland was because I got the opportunity to play volleyball here, and I really fell in love with the team dynamic that I found when I came to visit. The coach emailed me first and it took two or three emails before she asked me if I wanted to commit. I was a late commitment because I committed in December of my senior year. But it was pretty smooth sailing, honestly.
AD: For Allie- Was the fact that it’s a historically women’s college a consideration at all? If so, was it a positive or a negative?
AK: When Wellesley first approached me, and I was a young eighth grader, at that point I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to a HWC. But as I got older, I was like, “Yeah, why not?”
AD: How important is the sports culture at your school and what is the involvement like? This can be both institutional and regarding student support.
AK: I’d say it's mostly the athletes that are interested in the other sports. The average student isn't super tapped into the athletic community. Most of the athletic support comes from within the athletic program. Regarding institutional support, there’s an athletic weight room that’s just for the varsity athletes. There’s a group of athletic trainers that work with the teams and construct workout plans for them. And then there’s the athletic training room, where there are trained professionals that help you with injuries and rehab and all that.
AG: Athletics are huge here. The main notion here is either you come for sports or you come to be a teacher, there’s no other way. So, athletics here are so intense and so well-supported because we get a lot of cool things that other people don't. And here, the saying is that we’re family. So no matter what's going on, we’ll have a home game and you will for sure see, minimum, three other teams there, whether that be men's basketball, or golf, or tennis, or baseball, or lacrosse, but there’s always a team there to support. That's just how it works around here- you go to every home game you can. On the athletics side, the support is insane. There are tutors that are specifically for athletes so that they can work on our time, our practice schedules, and our game schedules. We have, one of the best facilities for athletic training ever. And it's insane because we are a Division III school but we have Division I facilities and athletic trainers, and they all take their jobs so seriously. They literally do everything they can to get you back on the court or field as soon as possible.
AD: Alexa, do you know if that’s a special case, or do you know of similar programs at other D-III schools?
AG: People on my team are very much in contact with people at other SUNY schools- I have a friend at Buffalo State and I have a friend at [SUNY] Oswego, so I always ask them how that goes. They have all the academic things — they have the support system, they have the leniency with the teachers, and they have the tutors and everything. But on the athletic training side, they really don't have all the equipment that we have, which apparently makes a world of difference. I sprained my ankle, and I was back in three weeks. One of my friends sprained their ankle at Oswego and they were out for a month and a half, so I know that the athletic training aspect at Cortland is a whole other level.
AD: How would you describe your program?
AK: It was supportive, and I met some of my best friends. My teammates became my mentors in a lot of different ways- whether it be career-wise, or academically. It introduced me to a lot of new people. It felt like it wasn’t just about the basketball. It was more that I built a lot of good relationships. And it was fun!
AG: Motivated, because we always want to do better. Our goal this year is to make it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAAs. Family, because God, that team is literally my family. There's nothing we do without each other. And confident, because we have high goals and know that we can achieve them. We’re not really scared to set those high goals- like going to the Sweet 16.
AD: Are there perceptions of your team from other people at your school?
AK: I think at a point, we were considered pretty cool. And then a lot of us stopped playing. Yeah, I don’t know. The basketball team doesn't have a campus-wide reputation for anything, really.
AG: Yes. I believe there are both positive and negative aspects to that. But mainly it’s pretty cool, because our program in recent years has made its name for being very successful, and coming back from horrible seasons- having our last two seasons winning the State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC) and all that. We've made a name for ourselves around Cortland. Negatively, it's more just average volleyball stuff, like a “You play the sport for the uniform” vibe, which is why I think it's really cool to see that our records in the last couple years have changed the perception of why we play the sport we do. It's cool because I can see the difference- like in my freshman year, how many people were at our games, compared to now, in my junior year. It's double or triple the amount of people. So that's always really cool to see the numbers go up as we do better.
AD: What is your favorite memory with your team?
AK: I’d say probably what sticks out most is just, like, bus rides with the team. We had a few long away trips, and some tournaments far away. I feel like that’s kinda when everyone’s chilling, and a lot of funny things happen on the bus.
AG: A volleyball one for sure is winning SUNYACs last year. That was a really big deal because it was a very long game. But I think it was one of the best games ever. I love it, I love watching it. Non-volleyball-wise, my favorite memory with my team is probably when we were at NCAAs. I don't remember what year it was. We went to a hotel that had a waterpark in it. They let us in after our games and we just had the whole thing to ourselves. That's probably one of my core memories with my team. That was insane.
AD: Who is your biggest sporting role model, and why?
AK: I feel like my greatest sports role model is probably my dad because he was an athlete himself and coached me from a very young age. I feel like in doing that, he didn't just teach me basketball and lacrosse, but he taught me a lot of important life lessons. He taught me how to carry myself, and he used sports to do that, but I think it was a good model for how I should carry myself throughout anything I'm doing.
AG: I think someone I look up to a lot in the sports world would be a player for Texas right now. Her name is Asjia O’Neal. She is the Texas middle blocker, and she has a lot of heart and soul, and really cares about the sport a lot. That is something that I want to show everyone, as well as being hardworking and everything, but to show that I actually do love and care about the sport. Especially because she’s gone through a lot—she’s had two open-heart surgeries. But she’s still playing and she’s made a name for herself; she’s one of the best middle blockers out there. So, I think she’s someone I look up to a lot.
AD: Allie, do you have anything to add about the experience of playing at a HWC? If you were to guess, how would you think it differed from playing at a co-ed school, if at all?
AK: I think that there are positives and negatives to everything, and I feel like some of the positives would have to do with not feeling constantly outshone by the men’s team. All of the support is catered to the women's team, which is cool. I think overall, just being in this environment, it’s all supportive people. So it probably differs in that way. There's not the constant comparison, and you don't have to prove yourself as much, because it feels like we all belong here.
AD: Any final remarks/something to say that wasn’t covered in the questions/message you want to get out about your team?
AK: I think it’s a privilege to be a college athlete, wherever you have the opportunity to do that. It can be challenging, and it’s rewarding in some ways, but it can also be a lot. It’s hard to get there and then it’s hard to do it, so- I just respect anyone who is a college athlete.
AG: Yeah, no, nothing else really to say. I love this stupid school, man.
It’s hard to make a generalization about any one program or set of circumstances. Obviously, not every co-ed college has access to the breadth of resources that Cortland does, and not every HWC athletics program will operate in the same way as Wellesley's.
With that, from these two conversations, one agreed-upon aspect seems to be that the program at the co-ed institution is more focused on sport for the sake of the sport, while at the historically women’s college, it seems to be posited more as just one factor of a well-rounded experience. This is also reflected in the athletes’ identity, which seems to be more integrally connected to the sport at the co-ed institution. The stereotypical college athlete experience will not necessarily occur at an HWC.
However, although there might not be as much institutional support for athletics at an HWC. One advantage there does seem to be is that everything exists solely for the women who utilize it, and everything at the school is designed to benefit its specific students and their experiences.
It also calls to mind different definitions of support and comfort, because while a female athlete would probably have a lower possibility of encountering misogyny at all at an HWC, there would be more opportunity to disprove it at a co-ed college, which Cortland has clearly done and continues to do.
The overall takeaway is that sports appear to be simply more of a priority at co-educational schools. But that leads to the question of how specifically the women’s side of sports is handled at these institutions.
Would there be the same impressive facilities at Cortland if there were no male athletes to use them? In the same line of thinking, would there be more attention paid to Wellesley sports if there were men’s teams?
Of course, these are hypotheticals, but they deserve consideration when thinking about how to advocate for women’s sports across all situations.
There is no argument to be made for one side in this– neither situation is better than the other and both experiences have their own pros and cons. In the fight for true equality, it’s important to note the disparities in coverage and facilities, not only across men’s and women’s sports but between programs.
At the collegiate level, there is less conversation surrounding pay, which gives more sway to these other factors. However, in order to pursue equality, we also have to view everything in the context of across-the-board support, because every women’s program deserves the same support as every men’s program. There is a need for inquisitions into not only disparities between the women's and men's programs at a specific institution, but also between different types and categories of institutions and programs.
This calls for a comprehensive view of women's sports both within and outside of the context of men and gives equal impact to calls for equality for both.