Rowan University has had an exciting few weeks. Not the kind it prefers.
Small errors cascaded into global scorn for a verbal policy that some athletic officials interpreted as banning women athletes from practicing in sports bras.
University officials quickly wrote a policy expressly allowing practice in sports bras, but the wave of criticism already was rolling. Countless online comments were followed by media coverage, and within days even sedate publications such as Teen Vogue and Outside Magazine were piling on. Runner’s World declared, “It’s 2018. Stop Telling Women What to Wear.” Weeks later, half the first-page results in an online search for Rowan University news were still about the sports bra ban and reversal.
The reaction to this confounding, anachronistic policy — even if it did seem to hold sway only in the minds of some members of the athletic department — and the university’s quick correction were heartening. Society’s immune response showed this level of gender-parity ignorance is highly unlikely to take hold anywhere civilized.
Even this small, confined episode didn’t need to happen, and other institutions can learn from Rowan’s mistakes to avoid such an unfortunate stumble. It was tripped up by institutional rigidity, semantics and a lack of communication.
An old verbal policy that no athletes can practice shirtless was outrun by the evolution of sportswear. Sports bras are workout clothes that have been women’s hot-weather top of choice for years. They’re less like bras than bikini tops and far less revealing.
Yet Rowan’s athletic director apparently told new staff that a shirt must be worn over the workout top and added this giant red flag: because the sports bras were “distracting to the football players.” When a member of the women’s cross country team posted this online, it quickly went rival.
If the athletic director and football coach were more committed to “providing the most accommodating and fair environment for all of our athletes,” as Rowan President Ali A. Houshmand put in the school’s overarching policy, they might have noticed that the sports bra was such in name only.
They might have gotten some help with that if communication between levels of Rowan officials was more open and effective. If the cross country coach had raised questions about the dubious verbal policy to the administration instead of just conveying it to her players, the debacle may have been avoided. But that’s a lot to ask of a new staff member and would have robbed athletic departments everywhere of this teachable moment.
The whole series of events seemed a bit quaint.
Nearly two decades ago, Brandi Chastain ripped off her shirt and knelt on-field in her sports bra in an exuberant celebration of her penalty kick to win the women’s World Cup soccer title for the U.S. A small number of people were shocked and complained, but when this iconic image of her appeared on multiple magazine covers, America seemed to assert a sensible attitude toward this workout attire.
As ever, though, progress is slow and occasionally uneven. The Rowan case will help athletic departments everywhere catch up.