Separate and equal? An in-depth look at Dartmouth athletics' compliance with Title IX

by Mark Cui | 11/7/16 12:20am

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The women's rugby team went varsity in 2015.

by Tiffany Zhai / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

On July 1, 2015, the Dartmouth rugby team announced its formal transition from club to varsity. Title IX, a law that prevents gender-based exclusion in any federally-funded education program, played a major role in the administration’s decision to ultimately approve of the transition. With Title IX looming over every gender-related sports decision at Dartmouth, several dedicated administrators spend time every day on the subject, and with nearly one quarter of Dartmouth undergraduates participating in varsity sports, the law undoubtedly shapes varsity sports at the College.

Enacted in 1972, Title IX requires gender equity in all education programs and activities funded by the federal government. It applies to employees and students of all genders and forces schools to adapt an established procedure for resolving Title IX complaints. Although the landmark federal legislation is generally associated with larger issues such as limited education opportunities and sexual violence, it also applies more specifically to issues such as gender discrimination within varsity sports teams. In total, the law applies to 10 key areas: access to higher education, career education, education for pregnant and parenting students, sexual harassment, standardized testing, technology and athletics. In sports, the ruling has actively guided college campuses in the United States to make drastic adjustments to prevent gender-based discrimination. In 2011, 193,000 women competed at the intercollegiate level compared to only 30,000 before Title IX. In addition, women are now more likely to play sports at the high school level. In 1972, one in 27 girls participated in high school sports; that ratio has since increased to two in five. The law has also significantly increased college scholarships for female athletes, travel schedules and federal funding.

Not only has Dartmouth been no exception to these dramatic increases in gender equity in varsity sports, the College has served as a paragon in this area for institutions nationwide. From 1992 to 1993, Dartmouth’s Gender Equity Committee conducted a comprehensive review of Title IX compliance and recommended many new initiatives that elevated Dartmouth as an early national leader in this area. As explained by Bob Ceplikas ’78, a member of the Gender Equity Committee at the time and Dartmouth’s current deputy director of athletics, those initiatives included elevating women’s volleyball and softball to full varsity status.

“[The merge made] Dartmouth among the first to proactively ensure that our athletic participation opportunities were proportional to our female enrollment,” Ceplikas said. “And the merging of Friends fundraising accounts in sports in which we offer both men’s and women’s teams at the same level, [ensured] equitable resources.”

Merging Friends fundraising accounts across genders allows women’s teams, which receive significantly less donations, to access a portion of the men’s teams’ donations for their budgets. The split varies and is based on the budget needs of the team. Dartmouth currently offers one of the country’s most comprehensive intercollegiate athletic program for its relatively small undergraduate population. There are a total of 35 varsity sports, with 16 men’s teams, 18 women’s teams and one coed team.

To comply with Title IX, a program must provide the following: athletic financial assistance, equivalence in other athletic benefits and opportunities and effective accommodation of student interests and abilities. The Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education measures compliance with the third area by requiring schools to fulfill one of the following three prongs: provide athletic participation opportunities that are substantially proportionate to the undergraduate enrollment, demonstrate a continual expansion of athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex, or fully accommodate the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex. Dartmouth, like other colleges, chooses to follow the first prong because the latter two are more qualitative and require increased monitoring of the student body. Every October, Dartmouth and other institutions submit their Equity in Athletics Data Analysis reports, which present data related to gender equity in sports and elucidate the individual school’s approach to the three prongs, to the Department of Education.

“We monitor compliance with all three prongs, but typically proportionality garners the most attention because it’s the easiest to quantify, and if an institution complies with it, the other two prongs are moot,” Ceplikas said.

Harry Sheehy, Dartmouth’s director of athletics and recreation, emphasized that proportionality is the best practice and easiest to understand, adding that Dartmouth currently also fulfills the third prong. By recently allowing women’s rugby to move to varsity and therefore supporting an expansion of women’s programs, the College is showing that it is meeting the needs of the current student body, according to Sheehy. Although Dartmouth currently fulfills one of the latter two prongs, it still continues to strive for the first prong from a the philosophical standpoint of equity.

For the first prong, the proportionality prong must be within a reasonable range, which is informally standardized at 3 percent or less differentiation according to Sheehy. Differentiation is calculated by subtracting the percentage of female varsity athletes from the percentage of female undergraduate students. In 2015-16, women comprised of 49.4 percent of the undergraduate population and 45.7 percent of varsity athletes, representing a 3.7 percent differentiation. Under Sheehy’s time as Dartmouth’s director of athletics and recreation, Dartmouth has made strides in reducing its differentiation, dropping from 8 percent from five years ago to 3.7 percent today.

At Dartmouth, the constant influx of walk-on novice male rowers presents one of the main challenges behind the differentiation.. In 2015-16, there was a total of 72 combined male heavyweight and lightweight rowers according to the EADA form, but that has varied from year-to-year. A ruling three years ago mandated that schools count novice male rowers for Title IX compliance.

“[Walk-ons] fluctuate from year-to-year,” said Sean Healey, the lightweight rowing head coach. “We cast a fairly wide net early on to get interested student athletes down to the boathouse, drawing in anywhere from 20 to 40. After that, there’s significant attrition in the first one to two months as athletes learn about the sport and adjust to life in college. I’d say a typical walk-on class might range from four to eight athletes by the end of freshman year.”

Heavyweight rowing head coach Wyatt Allen noted that there were similar fluctuations in walk-on numbers for heavyweight rowing; out of the 10 or so walk-ons per year, two to four make the team. Walk-ons are crucial for the teams because incoming experience is not a factor in determining the eight varsity spots. For heavyweight rowing, there are currently two walk-ons in the varsity eight, while there is currently one for lightweight rowing. A year in which significantly more male walk-on rowers join the team can throw gender equity numbers off balance. In contrast to the two men’s rowing teams, based on the 2015-16 EADA form, women’s rowing only has a total of 54 members and has less variance, which is often not enough to mitigate the larger number of male walk-ons.

Football will also throw off a university’s balance. The sport does not have a female counterpart and has a substantial number of male players while also taking up a large part of the athletic budget. In the 2015-16 season, Dartmouth’s football team single-handedly accounted for 16.7 percent of total revenues of the 35 varsity sports teams. The team also takes up 13.6 percent of the total budget for sports. While these numbers are significant considering that there are 35 varsity sports, it is far less than many other Division I schools. Many spend nearly 80 percent of all sports funds on football and basketball, the two largest sports. In contrast, Dartmouth only spends 21.7 percent of its total expenses for sports on men’s basketball and football.

To comply with the proportionality prong, two of the most common methods schools employ are eliminating certain male teams and capping men’s rosters while not limiting women’s rosters. Dartmouth has used a combination of these tactics to satisfy the proportionality prong. In the 1990s, Dartmouth cut men’s wrestling and gymnastics. The College expanded women’s sports in 1994 by adding women’s volleyball and softball. Generally, as long as there is not a budget issue, Dartmouth only cuts male teams as a last resort, according to Sheehy. Instead of eliminating male teams, Dartmouth uses a soft cap for managing male rosters and instructs coaches to instill an environment where females are less likely to quit, Sheehy said, adding that nationally women quit at a higher rate than men.

“Generally, schools have to use multiple approaches and do a little of everything,” Sheehy said. “Ideally, you’d like to do it without cutting a men’s team.”

Varsity coed teams at Dartmouth present an interesting scenario in regards to Title IX. In the fall of 2015, equestrian, which had traditionally been mostly female, formally became a women’s team, leaving sailing as the only remaining coed team. As of now, Dartmouth chooses not to place a specific gender ratio on sailing. In recent years, the team has maintained a relatively small roster size and has been composed of similar gender balances despite the lack of outside influences. In the 2015-16 season, the sailing team included 11 men and 16 women.

As the head of the athletic department since 2010, Sheehy plays a vital role in overseeing that Dartmouth complies with Title IX.

“Most importantly, I maintain a philosophical position that we want to provide opportunities for women in our program that are equal to the men’s opportunities and that we will treat our athletes in a very similar fashion,” Sheehy said. “I look at and dig into the numbers every year, and as long as you pay attention to it, you can manage it.”

However, Sheehy emphasized that equal does not necessarily mean that teams have the same budget, even if the male and female teams are of the same sport. The men’s ice hockey team received a budget of $452,369, whereas the women’s team only received $239,335. But even factoring in team size still leaves a discrepency in spending. The men’s team has 27 members compared to 22 for the women’s team — per capita expenses for men’s ice hockey totaled $16,754 relative to $10,879 for women’s. Sheehy noted that the main reason behind this discrepancy was that men’s sticks, which can cost up to $500 to replace, break at a much faster rate and that men require expensive shoulder pads.

Rowing expenditures also branch across teams. The men receive $5,504 in per capita expense compared to only $3,761 for women. In the opposite extreme, varsity women basketball players have a per capita expense of $18,412 compared to $14,213 for the men. In many of the other sports with both male and female varsity teams, per capita expenses actually slightly favor the women’s teams, including golf, lacrosse, cross country and indoor track and field, swimming and diving, squash and tennis. The expenses slightly favor men in sailing and soccer.

The total operating expenses for men and women’s teams at Dartmouth for 2015-16 were $5,425,050. In 2015-16, women received $4,697 per capita expenses, which added up to 41.8 percent of the total budget, while men received $5,509 per capita expenses, or 58.2 percent of the total budget.

“You can’t put two sports side-by-side,” Sheehy said. “It’s more about percentage of opportunities available that you have within your department for men and women.”

The stringent limitations set by Title IX can make it difficult for a team to transition from club to varsity. Adding a varsity team also has a significant impact on admissions and requires support groups, trainers and equipment. Already, Dartmouth faces significant budget issues for some of its varsity teams, Sheehy said.

Sheehy noted that not being a varsity team can be beneficial. Because clubs are self-regulated and sometime self-funded, students can develop a high level of responsibility and leadership. In developing their own scheduling and travel, clubs also have more freedom than varsity teams.

“When you become varsity, things change,” Sheehy said. “You might be more beholden to a coach. The experience might change from something you don’t want it to change to. You may not want more regulated experience. You might not want the thumb of varsity oversight, so it really depends on what you want out of the experience.”

For women’s rugby, the transition to varsity was a long time in the making, as it allowed the club team to perform at a higher level.

“For years before we went varsity, the Dartmouth Women’s Rugby Club was a highly competitive team in the Ivy League. We put more into the team, in regards to time and commitment, than the average club team,” current co-captain Ashley Zepeda ’18 said. “We were looking for a way to get both the financial and structural support of Dartmouth athletics so we could take the team and sport to the next level and the best way to do that was to petition to go varsity.”

Two members of the team at the time, Alison Brouckman ’15 and Diana Wise ’15, were particularly instrumental in spearheading rugby’s transition from club to varsity.

The team worked with the then head of club sports, Joann Brislin, and Megan Sobel in the athletic department to pass the proposal up the chain. Over the next nine months, the proposal was reviewed by the athletic department, Harry Sheehy, President Hanlon and the Board of Trustees. In March of 2015, the team found out that it was being promoted to varsity status.

Title IX played a pivotal role throughout the process. In order to convince the administration to accept rugby’s proposal, Brouckman noted that the rugby team provided a strong case for how becoming varsity would still be in compliance with the first prong.

“We submitted our proposal to attain varsity status in the spring of 2014, basing our argument on the three prongs of Title IX,” Brouckman said. “[For the first prong], the male-female enrollment is 50-50 at Dartmouth and the school was approaching athletic numbers that were getting out of parity. Though the school’s reported numbers of athletes were about a 53-47 split, when we went through and counted the rosters of our teams on the website we saw the numbers actually approached 57-43. However, Dartmouth was already aware that this was an issue, so they were open to discussing how to improve this. We know for some schools, they keep the balance by cutting a men’s sport, so we were thrilled that Dartmouth went the better route by adding a women’s one instead.”

Sheehy disputed the 57-43 claim.

While the proportionality prong was the general standard that Dartmouth used, the team also provided cases for the second and third prong as backups. For the second prong, the school had to show a recent history of expanding sport offerings for women, which is generally shown by the implementation of new sports or competitive levels for women within the past three to five years. Unlike lacrosse and hockey, which set limitations on women, rugby is the only-full contact sport in which women can play with the same rules as men.

“We argued that since the school has opportunities for full contact sports for men in football, hockey and lacrosse that the same offerings should be made for women,” Brouckman said. “The easiest way to do this was [by making] women’s rugby a varsity sport.”

For the third prong, the school must fully and effectively accommodate the interests and abilities of female athletes as documented by regularly-administered surveys of women for emerging interests in sports.

“Although we didn’t administer any surveys [for the third prong], we argued that our interest and our abilities were not being represented by Dartmouth at the highest level they could be,” Brouckman said. “The very fact we submitted the proposal showed our interest.”

Given the strong argument by the rugby team, Ceplikas and the rest of the administration approved the women’s rugby team’s request to change from a club sport to varsity.

The student leaders of the then women’s rugby club approached the senior administrators with an unusually compelling case, Ceplikas said.

“After reviewing the level of interest, the availability of targeted resources, including facilities, endowment, NCAA support, the growth of the sport nationally and in the Ivy League and the opportunity to respond affirmatively to all three prongs of Title IX compliance, we recommended to President Hanlon that we transition that sport from club to varsity,” Ceplikas said.

While successful, the women’s rugby team transition to varsity led to mixed feelings among team members, and over 10 members of the original team dropped out. Varsity required a significant increase in time commitment and a more rigorous schedule.

“Most of it was attributed to the changes in culture and dissatisfaction surrounding that,” Zepeda said. “Going from being a walk-on to a club team to suddenly being a Division 1 varsity athlete overnight is not for everyone. We also unfortunately have had to let go of some traditions that don’t align with the standards of [Dartmouth Peak Performance]. Sacrifice is a part of success for sure, and that’s been the most relevant theme for me so far in this varsity experience.”

However, the remaining members on the team have felt that the move was well worth it, as becoming varsity provides several advantages over club. Zepeda observed that the team had greater opportunities to improve given the access to elite level rugby coaches and increased funding.

Dartmouth has never formally faced a Title IX investigation regarding athletics. While individuals have brought up issues under Title IX to Dartmouth, they have turned out to be complaints about coaches and their treatment of players, which do not fall under Title IX.

Title IX compliance has not been as smooth at other schools. There were a total of 80 Title IX complaints related to athletics in 2009 and 96 in 2011. In November 1996, female athletes at Brown University won a ruling that the University violated Title IX by demoting women’s gymnastics and volleyball from university-funded to donor-funded varsity status. In 2000, Louisiana State University was found guilty of defying Title IX in the University’s refusal to field varsity women’s softball and soccer teams, and was subsequently forced to add the two teams. Another important case of Title IX occurred at Colgate University in 1990-91. The college funded a men’s ice hockey team with a budget of $238,561 and $327,616 in financial aid. In contrast, the women’s hockey team had a budget of $4,600, had to pay $25 each in membership dues and had to provide for their own equipment and traveling expenses. The college justified the women’s ice hockey’s club status by arguing that women’s ice hockey was rarely played at the secondary level, and that the court should consider the school’s overall athletic program rather than individual teams. Stating that Title IX protected individuals rather than just classes of people, the District Court for the Northern District of New York ended up ruling in favor of the women’s ice hockey team, forcing Colgate to grant the team varsity status.

Generally, schools can go under the radar for a while, since the numbers within the October EADA report can be manipulated. For example, several schools such as Texas A&M University and Duke University take advantage of a loophole that allows them to report male practice players as female participants. Cornell University’s 2009-10 fencing squad officially listed 34 female members, when in actuality 15 of the members were men who practiced with the team. Oklahoma State University reported 35 more female varsity participants in the 2009-10 academic year than in 2003-04, despite the number of women participating decreasing by 12 percent. The inconsistent numbers suggest that the university may have double or triple counted female participants.

It is important to acknowledge that Title IX applies to all genders. Out of the 176 Title IX complaints related to sports in 2010 and 2011, 21 of them were related to discrimination against men. In 2011, having already eliminated men’s teams like wrestling, gymnastics and swimming, the University of Delaware announced that it sought to demote the men’s track and cross-country teams to club status. The official explanation for the cut was not to immediately comply with Title IX but out of concern the men’s track and cross-country teams may not be compliant in the future. Subsequently, members of the team have since filed a complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights.

While Title IX has made extraordinary strides in bridging the gap between men and women in college sports, there still exists some discrepancies between the two genders across universities nationwide. At Dartmouth, in addition to the budget differences described earlier (41.8 percent vs. 58.2 percent of total budget), significantly more money is spent on men’s teams recruiting. In 2015-16, a total of $647,542 was spent on men’s teams and only $330,643 spent on women’s teams. The differences in budget and recruiting expenditures may be partially explained by the revenue differences: men’s teams bring in $13,590,655 in revenue whereas women’s teams only bring in $8,648,809. While the budget and recruiting expenditures are skewed towards men, Dartmouth’s numbers are actually better than national averages: typical female athletes at Division I Football Bowl Subdivision schools receive 28 percent of total money spent on athletics, 31 percent of recruiting dollars, and 42 percent of athletic scholarship dollars.

Discrepancies also exist between male and female coaches. While there are currently no female head coaches coaching male teams, there are several male coaches coaching female teams. Sheehy commented that this was reflective of a general national trend of decreasing female coaches available in the market. In 2008, only 43 percent of coaches of women’s teams were women, in contrast to 90 percent in 1972. At Dartmouth, female candidates rarely apply for head coaching positions of male teams, Sheehy said. While being a woman is a factor considered in hiring, Sheehy pointed out that teams ultimately end up hiring the best all-around candidate. In addition to differences in hiring numbers, female head coaches also make less at Dartmouth, with average salaries of female head coaches at $81,596 compared to $115,512 for male head coaches. Sheehy explained that the salary differences were consistent with the market rate and the salary is ultimately controlled by the market.

Overall, Dartmouth has successfully complied with the sports aspect of Title IX. Led by Sheehy, the athletic department has continued to reduce the differentiation for proportionality numbers without cutting any teams and has accommodated the needs of the student body by allowing women’s rugby to become varsity. Although it does have some flaws, Title IX has been a driving force behind gender equality at universities across the nation and will continue to play a crucial role in athletics in the future.