Powerful Title IX report reveals reporting loopholes and roster manipulation in women’s college sports

The start of the women's mile finals during the Division I Men's and Women's Indoor Track and Field Championships
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A powerful new report by USA Today highlights how top U.S. colleges and universities are still falling short of complying with Title IX, the landmark law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or education program that receives funding from the federal government.

Most notable among the findings in USA Today’s comprehensive data analysis, which centered on 107 public schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision during the 2018-19 school year, was widespread use of roster manipulation as well as remarkable disparities in spending on travel, equipment and recruiting for women’s teams vs. their male counterparts.

Passed 50 years ago this June as part of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the pivotal 37-word sentence reads: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Related: Fifty years later, Title IX slogan ‘Give women a sporting chance’ still propels advocates

For those charged with implementing Title IX, it became obvious that one clear way to close the gender gap at the collegiate level was to require schools to provide equitable opportunities for women and men to play sports. However, USA Today found that schools have been abusing the accepted rules in ways that allow them “to comply with the letter of the law while violating its spirit.”

According to the report, the schools collectively added more than 3,600 additional participation “opportunities” for female athletes during the 2018-19 academic year despite not adding one new women’s team to any athletic program. Schools accomplished this by counting participants in ways that inflate women’s rosters:

  • Double- and triple-counting athletes: Schools in the analysis created 2,252 women’s roster spots thanks to a controversial counting method, permitted by the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees Title IX compliance and allows schools to count athletes more than once if they compete in more than one sport. One common example is in track and field, where an athlete that competes in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track can be counted as three participation opportunities to the federal government.
  • Padding women’s rowing rosters: Twenty-seven schools presented rosters with more athletes than needed, with teams averaging 87 women – more than double the maximum number allowed at most conference championships. Based on roster caps set in federal lawsuits at two Division I rowing programs, USA Today counted at least 838 female rowers – more than one-third – filled unnecessary roster spots.
  • Counting male practice players: At least one of every four women’s basketball players reported by schools to the federal government were actually men. Of the 107 schools surveyed, 52 of them counted at least 601 men as female participants who scrimmage with women’s basketball teams.

On the money front, the USA Today analysis found that for every dollar that schools spent on travel, equipment and recruiting for men’s teams, they spent just 71 cents on women. Over two seasons (2018-19 and 2019-20), that added up to $125 million more spent on men than women.

USA Today focused solely on sports with comparable men’s and women’s squads – basketball, baseball and softball, golf, soccer, swimming and diving, and tennis – and found that spending on soccer and swimming was roughly equal, while the greatest disparities were found in basketball, where coaches and athletic departments spent 63 cents on women for every dollar spent on men.

Some notable spending numbers:

  • Of the 107 schools, only two – University of Hawaii and University of Toledo – spent more on travel for its women’s basketball teams; 19 schools spent at least $1 million more on the men than the women.
  • Schools collectively spent $8.7 million (39 percent) more on equipment for men’s basketball than for the women.
  • On recruiting, schools spent $19 million (72 percent) more on recruiting for its men’s basketball programs than for the women’s programs. For example, Indiana University spent $1.2 million for its men’s basketball team compared to $216,513 spent for the women’s team.

However, compliance with Title IX is not based on specific teams but rather on a school’s entire athletic department, and the U.S. Department of Education only requires that spending on similar teams be equitable, which does not mean equal.

The overall result is a misleading picture that makes schools look better than they are at providing equitable playing opportunities for women. Additionally, the loopholes exposed by USA Today’s report reveal it’s the reporting guidelines themselves that need to be scrutinized more closely. In particular, the fact that Title IX compliance hinges on roster spots and not distinct athletes should be reexamined.

“If people, meaning athletic administrators and college presidents, wanted to be in compliance with Title IX because it was the right thing to do, they would’ve done it already,” said Nicole LaVoi, director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, via USA Today.

“They’ve had 50 years to figure it out,” she added. “So there’s no, ‘Well just give us time. We’ll figure it out.’ No, they’ve had 50 years. And so many schools are still struggling with this.”

USA Today, whose team included eight reporters, worked in collaboration with the Knight-Newhouse Data project at Syracuse University for the report. Its comprehensive data analysis compared athletic participation numbers reported by schools to the U.S. Department of Education against four different data sources: NCAA reports, online rosters, internal rosters (called “squad lists”) and reams of competition results. Additionally, reporters interviewed 51 Title IX experts and attorneys, lawmakers, athletes, coaches and athletic department administrators.

The full USA Today report can be found here.