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How Penn State and Its Number of Women’s Sports Athletes Add Up

Next week will be the 49th anniversary of the passing Title IX, the federal statue that protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

The federal law was buttressed as recently as Wednesday, when the U.S. Department of Education said discrimination against transgender students — and athletes — is prohibited by Title IX.

Title IX doesn’t just cover sports, but its protections and the frequent failings there often yield the biggest headlines. Witness this spring, when the weight room and swag bag discrepancies between the men’s and women’s teams competing in their respective NCAA basketball tournaments underscored the sad and unfortunately not surprising revelation that women in college sports are often not being treated fairly or equally compared to their male counterparts. Still.

In 2021, the 37 words of the federal law, enacted on June 23, 1972, have never rung stronger or truer:

Title IX protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

Paradoxically, the ongoing shortcomings suffered by women athletes come at a time when college women’s sports have never been more popular. According to ESPN, the recent viewership of women’s championships events on its networks is at an all-time high, to wit:

Women’s College World Series (softball): most watched ever; NCAA women’s college soccer championship: most-viewed College Cup championship match ever; NCAA women’s volleyball national championship game: viewing up 28%; NCAA women’s basketball Final Four: most-viewed in a decade; NCAA women’s gymnastics national championship: most-viewed ever; and 2020 WNBA finals: viewership up 16%.

This issue means a lot to me. I am a strong proponent of women’s athletics, especially at Penn State. For six years, I served as the volunteer faculty mentor for the PSU field hockey team. Students of mine in softball, women’s soccer and women’s basketball have selected me as their representative on faculty night and bring-your-professor-to-practice day. I’ve mentored dozens of women in sports at Penn State; on Wednesday night, that meant doing a Zoom call with three undergraduate women who are key executives of the student-run 2022 Penn State Sports Business Conference, of which I am an advisor.

In class, and in private conversations, we often talk about Title IX. Official statistics, self-reported by schools like Penn State to the NCAA and the Department of Education, are key elements of those lessons and discussions.

NCAA AND EADA: THE NUMBERS

About those statistics:

Like all NCAA member institutions, Penn State has to submit annual reports outlining its expenditures, salaries and athlete participation by sex. And, because Penn State receives financial assistance from the federal government, it must also submit annual, certified reports of participation and spending by sex to the Dept. of Education. Penn State athletics puts copies of both reports on its website here — although it has yet to post its most recent Dept. of Ed report, for 2019-20. I found those numbers on the government site, noted below.

The federal reports are mandated by the Equity in Education Disclosure Act (EADA, as everyone in college sports calls it). As such, you can find each university’s annual EADA report posted online, available to the public here, including Penn State’s 2019-20 report.

The EADA “cutting tool” allows you to tap in the federal database and compare one school’s report to another, which is what I did for this story. The following numbers are what each Big Ten Conference school submitted to comply with the EADA — Penn State included. They are the foundation of the following reporting.

There is an odd quirk to these numbers. All schools must submit participation numbers for each of its male and female teams, and must also break out if any athlete on the women’s roster is a “male practice practice player” — that is, a male student who officially practices with the women’s teams but does not compete on game day. Those male practice players are counted as women when doing math for EADA Title IX compliance. This is legal and permitted. I’m not kidding.

In Penn State’s case in 2019-20, it had 28 male practice players who counted as women — 18 in women’s basketball, one in field hockey, and three each in women’s fencing, women’s soccer and women’s volleyball. Michigan led the Big Ten in male practice players, with 43; Ohio State had 33. According to reports filed with the EADA, four conference teams do not use male practice players. (The complete list is below.)

Here is the implication: When tallying up the number of male and female athletes each school reports, a preponderance of male practice players provides a real-life false equivalency — important when trying to ensure there is equal opportunity for both sexes.

How do you judge if a university’s athletic program is following Title IX laws? There are three main ways; a school must meet only one of the following to show it is complying with Title IX:

1. Showing that the number of female athletes is in proportion to overall female enrollment, i.e., if undergraduate enrollment is 47% women, then 47% of the women sports participants should be women.

2. Demonstrating a history of expanding opportunities for women, i.e., opportunities and participation of women athletes is growing.

3. Proving that a school is meeting the athletic interests and abilities of its female students, i.e., there is not a hue and cry for more team spots for women or the creation of new teams, such as Penn State women undergrads petitioning for a women’s varsity rowing team, which eight Big Ten schools currently field. (Penn State has a club crew team.)

When male practice players are not counted as women, according to my research using the EADA, only two Big Ten schools (Rutgers and Purdue) meet that first criterion — which is proportionally. 

All schools submit two sets of participation numbers for male and female athletes to the EADA: 1.) Total participation; that is the number of slots for male or female athletes. If a male distance runner competes in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track, he counts as three participants because there are three opportunities, or slots. Same goes for women athletes. 2.) Schools also must provide the number of unduplicated male and female participants — the number of unique individuals who participated on at least one varsity team.

On the chart below, I used the EADA numbers for total participants and, in some instances which I clearly note, subtracted the male practice players for all 14 Big Ten teams. This is to compare apples-to-apples and to truly judge how many different spots are allotted for male and female athletes.

A frequent question is, Where does football fit into this? All schools must report football participation numbers, and football is not exempt. That means its number of football players — whether it is 123 by Penn State, 125 by Ohio State or 170 by Nebraska — must be balanced by opportunities for women athletes, per one of the aforementioned three criteria.

WHERE PENN STATE STANDS

So, how does Penn State — led by VP for intercollegiate athletics Sandy Barbour — fare in total participation by sex, when benchmarked with the other 13 universities in the Big Ten? Not great.

Here is an overview of where PSU stands in the Big Ten Conference regarding athlete participation by sex, based on each school’s 2019-20 EADA report:

Number of women’s teams: Penn State has 15, second in the Big Ten (Ohio State has 19).

Men’s vs. women’s teams: In the Big Ten, only Penn State has more men’s teams (16) than women’s teams.

Number of female participants, counting male practice players as women: Penn State is ninth in the Big Ten, with 426. The leader board: Michigan (573), Ohio State (555), Wisconsin (465), Minnesota (452), Rutgers (443), Michigan State (438), Iowa (432) and Nebraska (430).

Number of female participants, NOT counting male practice players: Penn State is tied for ninth in the Big Ten, with 398. The leader board: Michigan (530), Ohio State (522), Wisconsin (465), Michigan State (438), Minnesota (435), Iowa (417), Rutgers (414), Nebraska (405) and then both Penn State and Indiana, at 398.

Discrepancy between male athletes and women athletes, counting male practice players: Penn State ranks 14th in the Big Ten, with the widest gap between male participants and female participants, at 114 — 540 male and 426 female (28 of whom are male practice players).

Discrepancy between male athletes and female athletes, NOT counting male practice players: Penn State ranks 14th in the Big Ten, with the widest gap between male participants and female participants, at 142 — 540 male and 398 female.

Discrepancy between the proportion of women undergraduate students and the proportion of women athletes (per #1 of the three-pronged Title IX compliance test), NOT counting male practice players — which I think is the fairest metric, because I do not believe the math that 1 male practice player = 1 female undergraduate student: Penn State ranks 14th in the Big Ten, with a 5.9% difference between female athletes (41.2%) and female students on the Penn State University Park campus (47.1%). Michigan ranks a close 13th, at a 4.8% difference.

Even when Penn State counted male practice players as females, it still has the biggest gap in the Big Ten (3.1%) between female students and female athletes (28 of whom were really men).

THE HISTORY

OK, you say, what about Title IX metric #2 — demonstrating a history of expanding opportunities for women?

Barbour was hired in August 2014, so the 2014-15 numbers are a baseline of where Penn State stood before she could put a stamp on the program, at least in terms of participation. Rosters were basically set.

According to the report Penn State submitted to the EADA for July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015, Penn State athletics had 508 male participants and 426 female participants, with 38 of those 426 being male practice players. That left 388 female athletes.

In 2019-20 (the most recent numbers publicly available), Penn State reported 540 male participants and 426 female participants. That’s counting 28 male practice players as females.

So, in six seasons under Barbour, the number of male athletes jumped by 32 (508 to 540) and the number of female athletes, not counting male practice players, jumped by 10 (388 to 398). That’s an increase of three times as many male athletes as females.

The progression of female athletes, sans male practice players, has gone from 388 to 403 to 390 to 398 to 391 to 390.

I’m not the only one who has accessed the EADA data lately. None of this is new to Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former three-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer who is CEO of Champion Women, a non-profit “advocacy [group] for girls and women in sport.”

In June 2020, Hogshead-Makar sent a letter to Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and all 14 athletic directors in the Big Ten Conference, replete with extensive data and reminding them “of their institutional obligation to uphold Title IX.” Her letter contended “that the data we have compiled from the Equity in Athletics Database demonstrate that women are facing serious Title IX deficiencies; they lag behind men’s programming in every measurable criteria.”

THE EADA DATA

A breakdown of key participation data, from the EADA, of all Big Ten Conference schools follows.

Total numbers include the outdoor male and female track participants on the rosters for Nebraska, Maryland, Indiana and Minnesota (self-reported by each school to the EADA as a footnote), as if there had been an outdoor track season in 2020. All other schools included those numbers in their core reports.

Undergraduate student percentages are based on numbers submitted to the EADA by each school for 2019-20. According to those numbers, Penn State-University Park ranks second in the Big Ten in female undergraduates, with 18,486; Ohio State is first, with 20,816. Ohio State and Penn State are also 1-2 in male undergraduates, at 21,770 and 20,781, respectively.

ILLINOIS
Sports: 10 male, 11 female.
Athlete participation: 681 — 359 male (52.3%); 322 female, counting 12 male practice players (47.7%); 310 female, not counting male practice players as female (45.5%).
Overall undergrad students: 53.4% male, 46.6% female.
Gender gap: there are 37 more male athletes than female athletes, 49 more males if not counting male practice players as women.
Women: 45.5% athletes, 46.6% students. To represent study body %: add 7 female athletes.

INDIANA
Sports: 11 male, 13 female.
Athlete participation: 842 — 421 male (50%); 421 female, counting 23 male practice players (50%); 398 females, not counting male practice players as female (47.3%). 
Overall undergrad students: 52.3% male, 47.7% female.
Gender gap: 0 more male athletes than female athletes, 23 more males if not counting male practice players as women.
Women: 47.3% athletes, 47.7% students. To represent study body %: add 3 female athletes.

IOWA
Sports: 11 male, 13 female.
Athlete participation: 824 — 392 male (47.6%); 432 female, counting 15 male practice players (52.4%); 417 female, not counting male practice players as female (50.6%).
Overall undergrad students: 45.8% male, 54.2% female.
Gender gap: there are 40 more female athletes than male athletes, 25 more females if not counting male practice players as women.
Women: 50.6% athletes, 54.2% students.
To represent study body %: add 30 female athletes.

MARYLAND
Sports: 10 male, 14 female.
Athlete participation: 625 — 332 male (53.1%); 293 female (46.9%).
Overall undergrad students: 51.7% male, 48.3% female.
Gender gap: there are 39 more male athletes than female athletes.
Women: 46.9% athletes, 48.3% students. To represent study body %: add 9 female athletes.

MICHIGAN
Sports: 14 male, 15 female.
Athlete participation: 1,150 — 577 male (50.2%); 573 female, counting 43 male practice players (49.8%); 530 female, not counting male practice players as female (46%).
Overall undergrad students: 49.2% male, 50.8% female.
Gender gap: there are 4 more male athletes than female athletes, 47 more males if not counting male practice players as women.
Women: 46% athletes, 50.8% students. To represent study body %: add 54 female athletes.

MICHIGAN STATE
Sports: 12 male, 13 female.
Athlete participation: 876 — 438 male (50%); 438 female (50%).
Overall undergrad students: 49% male, 51% female.
Gender gap: there are the same number of male and female athletes.
Women: 50% athletes, 51% students. To represent study body %: add 9 female athletes.

MINNESOTA
Sports: 12 male, 13 female.
Athlete participation: 890 — 438 male (49.2%); 452 female, counting 17 male practice players (50.8%); 435 females, not counting male practice players as female (48.9%).
Overall undergrad students: 46.4% male, 53.6% female.
Gender gap: there are 14 more female athletes than male athletes; there are 3 more male athletes than female athletes if not counting male practice players as women.
Women: 48.9% athletes, 53.6% students. To represent study body %: add 32 female athletes.

NEBRASKA
Sports: 10 male, 14 female.
Athlete participation: 906 — 476 male (52.5%); 430 female, counting 25 male practice players (47.5%); 405 female, not counting male practice players as female (44.7%).
Overall undergrad students: 52% male, 48% female.
Gender gap: there are 46 more male athletes than female athletes, 71 more males if not counting male practice players as females.
Women: 44.7% athletes, 48% students. To represent study body %: add 30 female athletes.

NORTHWESTERN
Sports: 8 male, 11 female.
Athlete participation: 528 — 261 male (49.4%); 267 female (50.6%).
Overall undergrad students: 48.9% male, 51.1% female.
Gender gap: there are 6 more female athletes than male athletes.
Women: 50.6% athletes, 51.1% students. To represent study body %: add 3 female athletes.

OHIO STATE
Sports: 18 male, 19 female.
Athlete participation: 1,163 — 608 male (52.3%); 555 female, counting 33 male practice players (47.7%); 522 female, not counting male practice players as female (44.9%).
Overall undergrad students: 51.1% male, 48.9% female.
Gender gap: there are 53 more male athletes than female athletes, 86 more males if not counting male practice players as women
Women: 44.9% athletes, 48.9% students. To represent study body %: add 47 female athletes.

PENN STATE
Sports: 16 male, 15 female.
Athlete participation: 966 — 540 male (56%); 426 female, counting 28 male practice players (44%); 398 female, not counting male practice players as female (41.2%).
Overall undergrad students: 52.9% male, 47.1% female.
Gender gap: there are 114 more male athletes than female athletes, 142 more males if not counting male practice players as women.
Women: 41.2% athletes, 47.1% students. To represent study body %: add 57 female athletes.

PURDUE
Sports: 10 male, 10 female.
Athlete participation: 608 — 345 male (56.7%); 263 female (43.3%).
Overall undergrad students: 57.5% male, 42.5% female.
Gender gap: there are 82 more male athletes than female athletes.
Women: 43.3% athletes, 42.5% students. To represent study body %: add 5 male athletes.

RUTGERS
Sports: 10 male, 14 female
Athlete participation: 854 — 411 male (48.1%); 443 female, counting 29 male practice players (51.9%); 414 female, not counting male practice players as female (48.5%).
Overall undergrad students: 51.7% male, 48.3% female.
Gender gap: there are 32 more female athletes than male athletes, 3 more females if not counting male practice players as women.
Women: 48.5% athletes, 48.3% students. To represent study body %: add 2 male athletes.

WISCONSIN
Sports: 11 male, 12 female.
Athlete participation: 918 — 453 male (49.3%); 465 female (50.7%).
Overall undergrad students: 47.6% male, 52.4% female.
Gender gap: there are 12 more female athletes than male athletes.
Women: 50.7% athletes, 52.4% students. To represent study body %: add 16 female athletes.