Illinois has no plans to add more men’s varsity sports

By Kevin Kaplan

Just two years ago, junior Mark Zerlang’s soccer team finished second in the nation. Though a student at the University of Illinois, Zerlang does not play for the Division I Fighting Illini but rather the club soccer team, thanks to the University’s lack of a varsity Division I men’s soccer team.

Recruited by schools like Virginia and Cincinnati, Zerlang could have gone to a Division I program.

But he chose Illinois mainly for its academics and the competitiveness of the club.

“Growing up on a club team, a lot of my friends went Division I,” Zerlang said. “There’s a lot of talent even though we aren’t a varsity team. We would be unbelievable if we were able to recruit.”

Zerlang is not alone.

Senior Jordan Pringle captains an Illinois club hockey team that last year finished 38-0-0 en route to winning the ACHA National Championship.

“It’s something that we talk about all the time,” Pringle said. “I think it’d be great, honestly, if all the Big Ten teams have hockey teams.

“I think it would be a really cool conference.”

Seven Big Ten schools offer varsity men’s soccer teams and five offer men’s hockey.

But between baseball at Wisconsin, cross country and track and field at Northwestern, and men’s soccer and swimming and diving at Illinois, there are many cases throughout the Big Ten where otherwise common sports are absent.

Illinois has been without men’s swimming and diving since the 1990s, when the University eliminated it, along with men’s fencing, in favor of picking up women’s soccer and softball.

This exchange of men’s sports for women’s speaks to the influence of Title IX – a hotly debated piece of legislation.

It was passed in 1972, aimed at eliminating gender-based discrimination in all institutions that receive federal funds.

“Prongs” and emergent sports

In 1979, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued the modern “three-prong” athletic interpretation of Title IX, in which a school is in compliance with the regulation if it follows any one of three different criteria, or “prongs.”

Contrary to popular belief, only the first prong demands an equal number of sports for men and women. Schools could instead choose to follow the second prong, which demands that a University continually expand opportunities for women. Or it could follow the third, like Illinois, which vaguely demands a school spends equal effort and resources on men’s and women’s sports to ensure the “interests and abilities” of women are met.

The number of NCAA women’s teams has increased every year for the past 25 years across all divisions and now outnumber male sports 9,280 to 8,212.

The NCAA has tried to help universities comply with Title IX by creating “emergent sports,” which are exclusive to women. An emergent sport is a NCAA-recognized sport that is not part of Division I, II or III. They are a means to test a sport to determine whether it is competitive and appealing.

Women’s rowing, ice hockey, water polo and bowling are emergent sports that have already achieved Division I status. Seven Big Ten schools offer at least one of those sports, though Illinois is not among them. There are currently seven emergent sports, the only one offered at a Big Ten school being synchronized swimming at Ohio State.

High levels of interest at the intramural, high school and collegiate conference levels are factored into the NCAA’s decision to create an emergent sport. At the University of Illinois, men’s intramural soccer teams outnumber women’s 88 to 24, while in 2008 the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHSA) reported the state of Illinois to be ranked fifth in total male high school soccer players and third in male swimmers.

Yet, the University does not field either team. Illinois hockey head coach Chad Cassel cites Title IX, along with the need for a larger ice arena, as being the two main reasons for the University’s lack of a varsity team. Despite the challenges, Cassel still believes a varsity hockey team would make sense.

“I think it would be a natural transition because we have such a solid fan base already,” Cassel said. “I understand the reasoning for the rule and, you know, there’s nothing I can do about it, so I really don’t even give it much thought because it is what it is.”

Kent Brown, Sports Information Director at the University, explained the administration’s approach to complying with Title IX’s demands.

“There’s no question that Title IX plays a part in the status of all varsity sports,” Brown said. “At this point there are no plans to add a men’s sport, and Title IX does play a part in that.

“There certainly is a financial component … any sport that we would add would be a female sport. We are not considering a male sport as an addition to our group.”

Big Ten tries to make varsity

There are ways to balance Title IX compliance with the financial needs of athletic departments, and Big Ten schools are certainly trying. In 2000, Michigan created a tiered club system, in which qualified clubs can apply to earn “varsity status.”

These varsity clubs serve the same purpose as emerging sports, serving as a concrete way to show a sport is competitive and has Division I level interest. Ohio State solved the problem by spending money. Instead of choosing between sports, it picks up all of them, and currently leads the Big Ten with 17 men’s and 18 women’s sports. Men’s rowing and women’s water polo are the only sports not offered by Ohio State that are offered by at least one other Big Ten school.

Meanwhile, Brown said the “percentage numbers are close,” at Illinois.

“We continue to improve our ability to remain compliant; we have a plan and that could include roster management or a possible addition of another women’s sport,” Brown said.

Though the University has yet to pick up men’s soccer, Zerlang believes it would not only be popular enough to warrant a team but it has the potential to be a revenue sport.

“I feel the sports that Illinois and others have should be based on revenue and the popularity of the sport,” Zerlang said. “Soccer is one of the most popular sports in the world, and it is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. I think they should take a look and revamp the Title IX rule.”