Women athletes thrown by foul play

December 3, 1999

The equal treatment of women university athletes off the field is in question in the United States just as the law, fan support and even Fifa, world football's governing body, was starting to close the gender gap, writes Jon Marcus.

Thirteen women rugby players from Ohio State University were suspended for baring their breasts in a photograph and the Kentucky State University women's basketball team had to cancel most games when several players were suspected of receiving stolen sporting goods.

The punishments come after years of stories about male athletes getting away with far worse. The public outcry against Ohio State was so great that the school reversed the rugby players' suspension. But Ohio Rugby Union stepped in and reimposed it.

At Kentucky State all but four players have been suspended. The players allegedly received merchandise from a sporting goods store taken by a fellow student who worked there. No charges have yet been filed.

The women rugby players were visiting Washington DC, when they posed topless for each other on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A newspaper photographer who happened to see them also snapped their picture, which appeared all over the country.

Their coach, John Moore, supported the women, saying they had been inspired by US football player Brandi Chastain, who removed her shirt - exposing a sports bra - after the American team won the Women's World Cup this year.

Some said the rugby team was guilty of nothing more than a prank. "Women should be able to take off their shirts whenever they damn well please," said an angry Meredith Hall, captain of the women's water polo team at Brown University.

The university quickly became the target of widespread ridicule. Its home state newspaper, the Akron Beacon-Journal, sniped: "You'd have thought these young women had posed nude for Playboy magazine."

To make matters worse, an athletic department official received no punishment for stealing thousands of copies of a campus newspaper that had a critical story about the men's football team.

Even more embarrassing was the disclosure that Ohio State president William Kirwan is on the board of directors of Intimate Brands Inc, the parent company of lingerie firm Victoria's Secret, raising questions of hypocrisy.

Despite the school's abashed reversal, the women rugby players have been suspended from play for the rest of the season by the parent rugby union.

"It was a silly thing to do," union president Matt Hull said, "and not what we would want to promote in rugby."

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