OPINION: DIII women’s sports deserve greater institutional support

Kelsey Polhemus CM ’25 jumps for a spike. (Nanako Noda • The Student Life)

It’s 4:30 a.m. and 11 girls and their two coaches are on the pool deck, bags packed, gear ready to go. We’ve all been up for at least an hour already, and now we’re loading up the bus that will take us to UC San Diego for our 8 a.m. water polo game, the first of four in the Triton Invitational tournament that weekend. Through a yawn, someone asks, “How do they have enough money to fly the entire football team to Washington, but not to put us in a hotel for two nights?”


The response makes everyone stop complaining about the athletic department budget. It is an accepted fact — this is the way things are.

The conversation that morning was entirely speculative, but the sentiment certainly holds truth. Athletic department budgets at Division III schools are tight and administrators and coaches try to work as hard as they can with what they have, but often decisions become trade-offs. Are we going to pay for a hotel or food? New balls or more games? This is where outside support is incredibly helpful, and unequal. 

Title IX requires equal spending on men’s and women’s sports by university athletic departments, but because of reliance on donations and informal contributions, women’s athletics don’t necessarily have access to truly equal funding. Since men’s collegiate athletics are far more established and have a longer history, the alumni and donor base for male sports teams is larger in scope and age. 

Over quarantine, our Pomona-Pitzer water polo coaches put together Zoom meetings for both the men’s and women’s teams to meet alumni. The oldest alumna who talked to the women had been in the Class of 2005, our current coach’s first year. They all described how before then, the women’s program had been a complete joke, neglected by the coach and entirely self-funded. Not a single alumna was over the age of 40. 

Historic gender inequalities in college athletics continue to play out at the 5Cs. The institutional administrative change brought about by Title IX — and social change that is beginning to take female athletes as seriously as their male counterparts — is still bogged down by structural financial barriers. This is especially pertinent at the Division III level where donations play a large role in funding athletic activity.

Athletic departments don’t have to pull money out of thin air for their women’s athletic programs, but they should empower them to ask for it with greater institutional support. Discussing potential fundraising with my teammates, it is clear all of us are passionate about the greater opportunities additional funds could get us, but have absolutely no idea how to get them. A bake sale? Exhibition games? How much of our own money would we have to put in? How would we organize an event? Coordinating, planning and executing is an incredibly daunting and discouraging task. Institutional guidance from industry professionals would be invaluable in both executing effective fundraising and validating the value of women’s sports. Athletic departments should create fundraising guides, and actively work with captains to brainstorm possibilities and formulate logistics. The 5Cs pride themselves on using our resources to find creative, equitable solutions. We should apply this mindset to women’s athletics as well. 

Furthermore, athletic departments can play an active role in empowering their female athletes to ask for what they want. Young women are often conditioned to take what they’re given and work twice as hard. This ingrained mindset persists in the professional realm, where women continue to face glass ceilings and pay gaps. Athletic departments should play an active role in addressing persistent structural inequities while empowering their individual female athletes. 

Despite all the progress we’ve made, female athletes, especially in Division III, continue to be undervalued and under-supported in comparison to male athletes. We put our blood, sweat and tears into competing — not only with our opponents, but against a culture that trivializes our accomplishments, to prove that we can win. We know this is Division III. We play, we race and we practice because we love the sport. 

But sports are a powerful tool to build confidence and empower strong women. When it comes to funding and general perception, combatting historic inequality means applying equitable solutions, ones that require extra care for those who have previously been left out. 

The Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and P-P athletic departments have a responsibility to invest extra institutional resources — time, thought, networks — into their women’s teams. They have the unique opportunity to combat continued structural gender inequality in sports, while empowering female athletes beyond the scope of their collegiate career. 

Madison Lewis PO ’23 is from Palo Alto, California. She is a varsity athlete on the Pomona-Pitzer women’s water polo team.

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