Shortly after joining the women's rowing coaching staff at a deep-pocketed Power Five school, Sonya began to feel uneasy about an aspect of her new job.
She didn't like that women's rowing was required to stuff its roster with dozens of excess athletes in the fall and shed the unneeded newcomers by the spring.
At the start of each new school year, Sonya and her rowing colleagues would scour campus for tall, physically fit incoming freshmen who were interested in trying a new sport. Some years, women's rowing had to carry at least 90 athletes on its roster through its first fall competition, Sonya said. Other years, the minimum number was as high as 110. Either way, the bloated roster far exceeded the 23 athletes needed to compete at the NCAA rowing championships or the 37 required to vie for a conference title.
The purpose of bringing aboard so many novice rowers was never explicitly spelled out to Sonya, but she says, "It was very easy to see what was happening." The athletic department was padding the number of female participants it could legally claim, creating the illusion of gender equity even though many of the novice rowers would never actually wear school colors in a race.
Sonya says athletic administrators expected the women's rowing coaches to trim their roster to 60 or fewer by early in the spring semester. Only those athletes invited to continue training with the team received team gear, free meals at the school's athletic dining facility and access to athletic trainers and academic support staff. Those who quit on their own during the fall or didn't make the cut, Sonya says, "might get a T-shirt and a hat if they're lucky."
Sonya fears for her career revealing these details, so much so that Yahoo Sports is withholding the name of the school where she coached and using a pseudonym to protect her identity. And yet she feels it's important to talk openly about the tactics used to achieve Title IX compliance in hopes that it leads to future reform.
"The world needs to know what's really going on behind the scenes," Sonya says. "Even though we’re celebrating 50 years of Title IX, we still have a lot of work to do to reach true equality."
Coaches, administrators and attorneys who spoke to Yahoo Sports say the roster manipulation that Sonya described is common across college athletics. As the 50th anniversary of Title IX approaches later this week, many cash-strapped athletic departments with huge football rosters still resort to subterfuge to satisfy the federal law without eliminating men's sports or spending money to add new women's teams.
Dozens of schools take advantage of a loophole allowing them to count male practice players as female participants when reporting their numbers to the Department of Education. Last year, Penn State counted 21 male practice players across five women's sports. UConn, Michigan and TCU are among the schools whose women's basketball teams last year counted more male practice players than actual female players.
Double and triple counting female athletes who don't actually compete in more than one sport is also common. During the 2018-19 school year, Michigan State counted a combined 173 women on its cross-country, indoor and outdoor track teams. Last year, a lawsuit alleged that 66 of those athletes never participated in a competition for one of their supposed teams.
“These schools are weaseling out of their obligation to create a comparable number of opportunities for women,” said James Larew, an attorney who represented four University of Iowa swimmers in a Title IX lawsuit last year. “These aren’t bonafide varsity athletic experiences. They’re props to fill a quota.”
The difficulty in assessing Title IX compliance is that the public-facing participation data schools provide differs from what would be used to determine actual compliance with the law. It’s this public-facing data that is often the basis for lawsuits or the triggers for investigations. As a result, athletic departments have ample motivation to embellish their public-facing data in hopes of staying under the radar.
Athletic departments that resort to these sleight-of-hand tactics often go unpunished, as do those who remain out of compliance with Title IX. No institution has ever lost federal funding for failing to fully comply. Meaningful penalties typically require an alleged victim of discrimination to file a lawsuit and a court to award monetary damages or order specific remedies.
"We are so far from being where we should be because there is no oversight and no transparency," said Sue Enquist, the decorated former UCLA softball coach who now works as a Title IX consultant. "Right now, Title IX has no teeth."
What is Title IX?
The 37 words that reshaped college athletics indeed didn't eliminate sex discrimination in college athletics overnight. In reality, the struggle for gender equity was only just beginning on June 23, 1972, when Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law.
Pioneering female athletes of the 1970s encountered stark inequities in university support. In those days, women's teams often had hand-me-down gear, insufficient funding, inferior facilities and inconvenient practice times. In 1975, when Enquist became UCLA's first scholarship softball player, the Bruins didn't boast four sets of Nike uniforms and special-edition cleats like they do today. "Our game uniforms that year," Enquist said, "were the men's track and field team's old practice T-shirts."
The Rosa Parks of the Title IX movement was a Yale women's rowing captain who grew fed up with her university's neglect. Yale had dragged its feet on installing shower facilities for women at its off-campus boathouse. As a result, after drenching workouts in frigid weather, the women's rowers would shiver on the bus that took both teams back to campus while the men showered and changed.
On March 3, 1976, future Olympian Chris Ernst and 18 of her teammates marched into the office of Yale's director of women's athletics and stripped off their clothes to reveal the words "Title IX" written across their chests and backs. In the presence of a New York Times stringer, Ernst then read a statement that began: "These are the bodies that Yale is exploiting. ... On a day like today, the ice freezes on this skin while we sit for half an hour, then as the ice melts it soaks through to meet the sweat that is soaking us from the inside.”
The protest quickly got Ernst and her teammates their showers. It also drew national attention to the gender inequality in college sports and to Title IX's potential to improve those conditions.
What followed were decades of legal wrangling, policy shaping and halting progress. Especially influential was the 1979 introduction of a set of three Title IX compliance standards for athletics, any one of which an institution must meet.
The primary prong says that the number of male and female athletes at an institution has to be proportional to its enrollment. If an institution cannot achieve proportionality, it can only satisfy Title IX by showing either:
A recent "history and continuing practice of program expansion" for the underrepresented sex.
Proof that it has already fully satisfied the interests of female students. The Department of Education looks at a variety of indicators to assess that, including high school and youth participation rates in sports that a school doesn’t offer; sports offered by other area colleges and requests made by students to add sports or elevate club teams to varsity status.
In 1972, male high school athletes outnumbered their female counterparts 12.5 to 1. Today, nearly 43 percent of high school athletes are female. A similar phenomenon occurred in college athletics, where female athletes went from being outnumbered nearly 6 to 1 in 1972 to accounting for about 44 percent of college athletes today.
These days, women are running Major League front offices, coaching NBA teams and officiating the Super Bowl. The U.S. women's soccer national team negotiated equal pay with the U.S. men during the next two World Cup cycles. The best known women's college basketball stars are landing more lucrative NIL deals than top men's players.
It's remarkable growth, experts say. And yet it also serves as a distraction from how far away gender equity is.
The football conundrum
In the early years of Title IX, many athletic administrators hunted for ways to sidestep the law’s most vexing issue: counterbalancing football’s 85 scholarships and 100-plus participants.
They tried introducing bills that would have made football exempt from Title IX. Those died in committees before ever reaching House or Senate floors.
They tried arguing in court that they were already meeting the interests of women who wanted to play sports. Typically, they lost those rulings.
They received a brief reprieve in 1984 when a Supreme Court ruling removed Title IX’s applicability to college athletics. That ended four years later when Congress passed a law overriding that Supreme Court decision.
Finally, when it was clear Title IX was going to have staying power, athletic administrators began considering new ways to satisfy the law while still protecting their chief revenue-producing sport. They needed a means of achieving proportionality without trimming their football rosters, slashing other men’s sports or busting their budgets adding new women’s teams.
They needed a single women’s sport that could reasonably carry big numbers.
They found their answer in women’s rowing.
In 1993, there were 30 Division I college women’s rowing teams with an average roster size of 34, per NCAA participation data. Only eight years later, there were 82 Division I teams carrying an average of 55 female rowers.
“Rowing was attractive because you could add large numbers of female athletes in a hurry,” said Janet Kittle, the former chair of the NCAA’s committee on women’s athletics when rowing became an emerging sport. “The supposed compensation for football was why so many institutions added the sport.”
As dozens of schools began elevating their women’s rowing programs from club to varsity status, the sport’s coaches made what attorney James Larew calls “a deal with the devil.”
Many enjoyed the credibility bump, newfound resources and other perks that becoming an NCAA championship sport brought. In return, they mostly stayed quiet and resisted questioning athletic department requirements that they pad their rosters by taking more walk-ons than necessary — dozens more in some cases.
For most of her career, UConn women’s rowing coach Jennifer Sanford says she was instructed to have a roster of at least 60 on the day of the Huskies’ first fall competition, the day that gender-equity reports are submitted to the Department of Education. That exceeded the number that Sanford preferred most years, but she said she “took the attitude that we’re just grateful to be here and have a rowing team.”
“I kept my head down and played the game,” Sanford told Yahoo Sports. “There were years where if I was thinking of cutting someone, I’d wait until after that first date of competition. You don’t question it because that’s what everybody does.”
When UConn announced plans to cut women’s rowing at the height of the pandemic, several of Sanford’s athletes filed a lawsuit claiming the school could not do so and remain in Title IX compliance. The federal judge said in her ruling that Sanford gave “credible testimony that she was required to keep a minimum of 60 rowers,” but UConn athletic director David Benedict insists that any assertion this has been his department’s practice during his tenure is “categorically false.”
“While I obviously cannot speak for all of the administrations during Coach Sanford’s long tenure,” the sixth-year UConn athletic director said in a statement to Yahoo Sports, “I can emphatically represent that I have never instructed a coach to artificially inflate their team’s roster size in this manner or any other. ”
In some ways, Sanford was lucky if 60 was her number. Other women’s rowing coaches at top college football schools had to inflate their rosters to twice that size in an effort to help their athletic departments satisfy Title IX.
Ohio State has reported to the Department of Education an average of 105 women’s rowing participants over the past five years. Michigan, Alabama and Clemson have averaged during that same stretch 113, 107 and 95, respectively. And those are all dwarfed by Wisconsin, which regularly exceeds 160 women’s rowers and reported a roster of over 200 in 2011 and 2012.
Since there are seldom enough qualified female rowers with high school experience to fill those oversized rosters, college coaches often hit their numbers by seeking out walk-on novices. Any woman on campus can typically come to a fall information session, though there’s a preference for freshmen who are at least 5-foot-8 with a long wingspan and prior experience playing other sports.
“No previous rowing experience is required! We teach a new group of Buckeyes to row and compete every year,” reads a post on the Ohio State athletics website ahead of this August’s information meetings.
At Texas, the bar is even lower. The online flyer for last year’s walk-on meeting reads, “If you know how to jog, you can try out for rowing.” The ability to swim apparently is optional. “You need to know how to float,” an answer in the frequently asked questions section says.
The key question is how many novice rowers at these schools actually receive the bonafide varsity athletic experience that Title IX promises.
On one hand, there are former novice rowers who didn’t pick up the sport until college yet went on to make the U.S. Olympic team. On the other hand, there are many more examples of women who were counted for Title IX purposes yet quit or got cut without ever competing in a regatta or having their photos and bios on the athletic department website.
“When someone says, ‘Oh yeah, rowing, that’s a huge sport,’ that’s because they’re thinking of the Olympic model,” attorney Felice Duffy said. “To win the NCAA championships, you only need 23 people. If the NCAA wanted to justify these large numbers, they should have gone with a model that supported them.”
Double and triple counting
Angelina Ramos stumbled into a thorny situation four years ago when she became UNLV’s new women’s cross country coach.
Her athletic director didn’t approve of how the previous regime embellished its Title IX numbers by padding the women’s cross-country roster with athletes who didn’t belong.
The federal government and the NCAA instruct schools to count cross country, indoor track and field and outdoor track and field as three different teams despite significant roster overlap. As a result, these female athletes are potentially more valuable than their single-sport peers for Title IX counting purposes.
Schools often take advantage by loading their track rosters with more women than men and by being generous with how many female athletes they double and triple count. Duplicate counting added roughly 4,000 more to the Division I female participant tally last year than to the Division I male participant tally, according to a Yahoo Sports analysis of 2020-21 EADA data.
Forty-four Division I schools whose 2020-21 EADA participation data satisfied Title IX because of double-counting wouldn't have achieved proportionality if an unduplicated athlete count was used. The opposite was true for only five Division I schools.
For years, UNLV appears to have been among the schools who abused this rule. Former UNLV women’s track and field coach Yvonne Wade would assemble a roster of about 40 athletes. Administrators would then submit athletics participation data to the federal government triple counting many more athletes than actually competed for all three of the cross country, indoor and outdoor track teams.
Title IX allows athletes to be counted as participants without competing in any games or meets, but UNLV stretched that rule to its limits. During the 2009-10 school year, for example, UNLV’s online women's track roster included 41 athletes. UNLV counted 39 athletes for both women's outdoor and indoor track even though meet results indicate only 21 actually competed during the indoor season. In women's cross country that year, the discrepancy was even more glaring. UNLV counted 46 athletes even though cross-country meet results list just 11 as having competed.
The pattern of triple-counting women's track athletes continued until 2017 when UNLV hired Desiree Reed-Francois as its new athletic director. Reed-Francois, sources told Yahoo Sports, was aghast that UNLV had been counting anyone from shot putters, to triple jumpers, to sprinters as part of its women’s cross country roster.
“She was not going to accept that as a way to comply with Title IX,” Ramos said. “She wanted that addressed like ASAP.”
UNLV stopped triple-counting women’s track athletes across the board, but the school still needed to be able to report a high number of women’s cross country participants to come close to Title IX compliance. As a result, after Ramos was hired the following year, she said Reed-Francois tasked her with recruiting more non-scholarship distance runners than UNLV had ever taken before.
The target, according to Ramos, was to grow UNLV’s distance corps from 11 in 2018, to 25 by 2019 and to 35 by 2021. Ramos’ only complaint was that UNLV “did not equivalently increase our budget.”
“We were supposed to stay within the same budget and have the same number of coaches,” she said, “even though we just tripled our roster size.”
While Ramos scoured the country to find walk-on distance runners and only took those who she believed she had the potential to develop into contributors, she concedes that it was challenging to get the most out of each athlete. The coach-to-athlete ratio at practices was low. There was never enough money to fly the developmental distance runners to level-appropriate out-of-town meets. Eventually, it became difficult for some to envision a path to becoming a scorer in either cross country or track.
“You get comments from other coaches, like, ‘Oh, that person's there just to pad the GPA. They're not really in the fight for a conference title with us,’” said Ramos, now the cross country coach at Ball State. “You think that stuff doesn't get back to those athletes? Of course it does. I loved every athlete that I brought in. There's not a single athlete that I didn’t believe in. I just wish some of them had gotten more opportunities.”
Counting men as women
Colton Purscell was struggling to earn playing time at a Division III school in Arkansas when he learned about another way to extend his basketball career.
Two former club teammates who attended Division I universities explained that they had been invited to practice with their school’s women’s basketball team.
“They told me they still get to play basketball and it’s fun,” Purscell said.
When Purscell transferred to TCU in 2014, he jumped at the chance to become a male practice player. The Frog Squad helped prepare TCU’s women’s basketball team for upcoming games by running the opponent’s plays, emulating opposing players and making practices tougher with their length, athleticism and physicality.
Purscell was surprised to learn recently that he helped TCU in another way during his two years as a male practice player. His alma mater took advantage of rules permitting it to count Purscell and other male practice players as female participants in gender equity reports submitted to the Department of Education.
TCU claimed to have 32 athletes on its women’s basketball roster last year, 14 women and 18 male practice players. The Department of Education database does not show exactly how many participants were male practice players in previous years, but TCU has claimed an average of nearly 30 women’s basketball athletes each year since 2013.
“That’s a big number,” Purscell acknowledged. “It kind of makes sense … but is it the best option? Maybe not.”
A TCU athletics spokesman did not return multiple emails from Yahoo Sports asking why the Horned Frogs needed so many male practice players. TCU claimed more male practice players as women’s basketball participants than any other Power Five school last year, but it’s important to note the Horned Frogs did not violate any federal guidelines by doing so.
The Department of Education instructs schools that “male practice players who are listed on the women’s team roster as of the day of the first scheduled contest should be counted as participants on the women’s team.” When asked by Yahoo Sports to justify this policy, the Department of Education did not respond.
Of the 65 Power Five schools, 18 counted male practice players in the 2020-21 gender equity reports they submitted to the Department of Education. Oregon, UCLA, Kansas State, Miami and Minnesota noted on their reports that they didn’t claim any male practice players last year only because COVID-19 prevented them from having any.
Among the women’s basketball powers that rely on male practice players but have never counted them on Title IX reports is Notre Dame. Retired Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who led the Irish to nine Final Fours and the 2001 and 2018 national titles, was relieved to learn that her athletic department hasn’t resorted to that tactic.
“It seems like a way of trying to get around supporting women,” McGraw told Yahoo Sports. “It completely goes against the entire point of Title IX. It should be illegal.”
As Title IX’s 50th anniversary shines a spotlight on the ways that schools are satisfying the letter of the law but perhaps not the spirit, a growing number of women’s coaches are starting to come forward with their concerns. Those include basketball coaches unhappy with the resource gap between the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments, track and field coaches tired of dubiously triple-counting female athletes and even a rowing coach who was once silent but has now found her voice.
Sanford has been vocal since UConn tried to eliminate her women’s rowing program, only to reverse course when a lawsuit revealed that the school was not in Title IX compliance. As part of the 2021 settlement, UConn awarded Sanford a three-year contract extension that she says provides her the financial security she needs to feel comfortable highlighting Title IX issues within her sport.
“It’s such a good feeling,” she says, “to be able to speak up for what’s right.”
Henry Bushnell contributed to this story.