COACHES of women's sports at universities and colleges in the United States could get paid similar salaries to their counterparts from big-time men's teams under government equal-pay guidelines.
Federal laws requiring comparable athletic opportunities for women, along with the growing popularity of such sports as women's basketball, hockey and soccer, have spurred vast expansions in the number of women's teams on campuses.
Yet the head coaches are paid 44 per cent less on average than head coaches of men's teams, who can make as much as three times more than women's coaches in the most competitive divisions.
"Women's athletic programmes historically and currently receive considerably fewer resources than men's programmes," the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a government agency that monitors labour issues, found.
The commission ruled that coaches of men's and women's teams should receive similar salaries if their jobs require similar "skill, effort and responsibility".
University and college spokesmen argue that the salaries paid to football and men's basketball coaches skew the averages to make it appear that coaches of all men's sports are paid substantially more than those of women's teams.
They say high salaries for football and men's basketball coaches - usually in the hundreds of thousands of dollars - are justifiable because the programmes often bring in revenue from ticket sales and television rights, and because competition for the best coaches drives up salaries.
The new federal equal pay guidelines do not have the force of law, but could be used as the basis of sex-discrimination suits by female coaches.
Deborah Brake, a lawyer for the National Women's Law Center, which has helped female athletes and coaches, said: "It certainly gives them more helpful legal authority, and to the extent there's been publicity about the guidelines, it makes them more aware.
"My hope would be that it wouldn't come to that. I think the universities with good lawyers will be taking a hard look at their salary structures and would be wise to bring women's salaries into line with men's."
Only one coach of a major women's university or college team has gone to court for equal pay. Marianne Stanley, who coached the women's basketball team at the University of Southern California, sued the school for $8 million (Pounds 5.3 million) for paying the then-men's basketball coach $54,000 a year more than it paid her. She lost and left the university, citing "athletic apartheid".
In the Stanley case, the courts decided that the two jobs were different because the male coach supervised a larger staff of assistant coaches and had public relations duties, and men's basketball generated more revenues.
Now, said Ms Brake, "the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guideline says you have to take a hard look at that revenue defence to make sure that it is not just being used as an excuse for sex discrimination."