By Sarah Odell
Women’s squash is at a crossroads. I have written in this blog about huge strides that we have made with women’s doubles in the last year, but the women’s game as a whole — singles and doubles, professionals and amateurs — is in crisis. Women are being denied the opportunity to play, and women’s squash is in danger of becoming stagnant.
I’m sorry if I sound alarmist (and yes, I believe the problem can be fixed), but it is time that the women of my beloved sport come together and decide to actively press for change.
The number of women’s college teams is dwindling, as Rochester and Johns Hopkins both abolished varsity programs in the last five years. This is a problem as women represent 40% of the US Squash membership until they graduate from college, when they then represent 15%. The NCAA has not seen significant growth in the sport over the last ten years.
As a result, squash was cut from the emerging sports list at the NCAA, effective in August. While I, as a former college athlete, have ambivalent feelings about the NCAA, this is a huge blow to the sport. The NCAA bestows emerging sport status with the hopes that in a few years, it will gain enough support to become a full-fledged NCAA sport. While in the emerging category, universities may count the females engaged in that sport toward meeting Title IX proportionality rules.
While the NCAA’s decision happened with little fanfare, I discovered this week that Brown University is cutting several recruiting spots from men’s and women’s squash. The University is cutting 30 spots from admissions, beginning with the men’s and women’s squash programs, and is considering getting rid of the program altogether (there are plans to eliminate other sports teams, too). Coincidence? I think not.
Trouble in the squash world may be most pronounced at the college level, but the women’s game is struggling at the top, too – although the issues are the same.
There has been a lot written recently about Title IX—in the New York Times, the blogosphere, and, most interestingly to me, in a bunch of emails I was copied on regarding the World Doubles Championships held in Toronto, Canada on May 6-9.
The tournament was supposed to have a men’s draw of 16 teams with a $30,000 purse, and a women’s draw of eight teams with a $10,000 purse. As the tournament approached, a problem arose: there was only $7600 in prize money for the women. While there was back and forth and blame about what had gone wrong, I noticed that Title IX kept popping up in emails as the professional women grappled with whether or not to boycott the event. Two teams did withdraw from the event.
What’s striking to me is that, yes, Title IX is a U.S. law passed in 1972 (so of course female squash pros playing in Toronto did not expect it to shape the World Doubles purse). But calling upon Title IX almost forty years later highlights the frustrating fact that women still face the same old challenge: opportunity. At every level, we are still battling for the chance to play.
Filling women’s draws at national championships, as well as for local squash tournaments is never easy. But doubles can be especially difficult because appropriately-sized courts are hard to find, period, and then sometimes women aren’t even allowed to play on them. In New York City, for example, there are six doubles courts, and women are only permitted to play on four of them.
It all comes back to opportunity. It may look like women aren’t interested in playing squash – until you consider the dearth of access. This spring, after the newly created doubles league ended in New York, some men (yes, men) at the University Club of New York came to me and said that they wanted to start a women’s doubles league in New York. They hoped that by giving us courts and competition at no charge, the league would be successful enough for NY Squash to add it to doubles programming for the fall.
Well, the offer of courts at no charge was too good to pass up. I emailed everyone I knew who was female and played squash in New York. I expected to bring two teams with 10 women total to the University Club. In two days, I brought them four teams and about 25 women. There are roughly 45 women in the league. (Even I was surprised and impressed).
You see, if you give women the opportunity to play, they will come out. But opportunities in squash are beginning to shrink, not grow. We as women, especially in the sport of squash, need to make a decision: either we rally and demand or create opportunity — or we watch this sport slip away.