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Title IX: Inequality in Sports

Inequality in Sports: Schools Found to Routinely Flout — or be ignorant of — Title IX laws

By Carl Prine
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

from the November-December 2002 issue of IRE Journal

Read the series: Second String: Gender ineqality in high school athletics

It seemed like such a simple idea. The assignment: Investigate whether public high schools in western Pennsylvania discriminate against young women when it comes to sports. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wondered if school policies and practices kept young women and their coaches from learning lifelong lessons about competition, discipline and leadership. At the top of the Tribune’s wish list: Give parents a detailed snapshot of how their tax dollars are spent to boost boys’ teams, not girls’ teams.

Easier said than done. It took a lone reporter six months of 80-hour weeks to tease out the numbers for “Second String: Gender Inequality in High School Athletics.” Hunched over filing cabinets in 129 high schools spread out over eight Pennsylvania counties, interviewing more than 500 coaches, athletic directors, parents, school leaders and female athletes, I charted how education officials systematically violate Title IX, the federal law intended to give girls an equal chance at playing sports.

With a nod to a stellar, earlier series on the same topic by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution , our key findings:

  • Gender. School policies and lax state and federal enforcement of anti-discrimination laws ensure that two out of every three western Pennsylvania athletes are boys.
  • Cost. While spending more money on male teams isn’t necessarily a Title IX violation, it’s strong evidence of wrongdoing. In western Pennsylvania, for every tax dollar spent on athletics, 69 cents go to male teams. The Tribune exploded the myth that football “supports” all the other teams. In reality, football loses more money than all other sports combined, a larger deficit than every female team in the region. This proved especially true at the poorest schools. Some impoverished districts spent more on their football squads than on building maintenance or bookkeeping.
  • Perks. The unregulated spending spree for boys by booster clubs means pricy perks for the guys, not the girls. Some of this information can be gleaned from 501(c)(3)forms found online or at the IRS, but better clues are often netted by going through school athletic department files. Most boosters don’t report their expenditures to the IRS, even if they’re required by law to do so. But they will send letters to athletic directors, and often the directors forward them invoices, too.
  • Scholarships. The disregard for western Pennsylvania’s female programs costs young women $4 million in annual athletic scholarships at nearby colleges. That’s a pretty good report card by which to measure female teams in your area. College coaches like to recruit in their own back yards. If they’re not doing that, the local talent pool is probably bad, and they won’t mind telling you why the girls’ teams are so weak. Here, they pointed to poor coaching slotted for the girls’ teams, plus other problems.
  • Administration. We asked districts to simply name their Title IX coordinators, a post required by law. The vast majority couldn’t do it. If they do list them, give the so-called “coordinators” a call. We found many didn’t know they were named to the post. Several asked, “What’s Title IX?” Few knew what their legal duties were. Look for athletic directors also serving as coordinators, charged with scrutinizing their own programs for discrimination. We couldn’t make this up.
  • Salaries. Discrimination doesn’t affect girls alone. Here, only one in every 10 high school coaches is a woman. The lack of female coaches proved true even in sports no Pennsylvania high school boy will ever play, such as softball. When a woman is hired, she’s typically paid less than male counterparts coaching the same sport. The canard we heard repeated over and over was that men were paid more because they coached more athletes. Data analysis proved that to be a lie. In fact, women instruct more girls, with worse equipment for less money. Salary specifics will often be found buried deep in collective-bargaining agreements or on supplemental payroll sheets. Look into what referees are paid, too. Here, athletic directors hire fewer refs for a girls’ basketball game, for example, and also pay them less than the men at the boys’ game. Typically, qualified women never get to referee a boys’ game. By law, they should be allowed to do so.
  • Compliance. The people responsible for with making sure gender discrimination doesn’t happen are asleep at the wheel. FOIA the U.S.

Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for a compliance history for the high schools in your area. Also, check with your state’s education office and high school athletic association, which are charged likewise with enforcing anti-discrimination laws. “Enforcers” here are paper tigers, and the lack of compliance investigations will prove that. A better source: Search court filings in your area for disgruntled parents willing to sue.

Combing receipts and budgets

For a four-day series that sparked the creation of dozens of new field hockey, track and basketball teams for young women — not to mention several softball diamonds, weight rooms and practice fields — there’s also a cautionary tale.

Like other states, there’s no Pennsylvania clearinghouse for team rosters, much less athletic expenditures. At nearly every school here, business managers have no clue how tax dollars are spent on teams. Spending, typically, is controlled by several departments — athletic directors, business offices, transportation managers, payroll clerks, etc.

Every school is different, and usually you have to pick through the paper files at several offices yourself. Here, some districts don’t even have computers to tabulate expenditures;the athletic directors run budgets totaling several hundred thousand dollars out of checkbooks.

To put it into perspective, I had to comb through more than 6 million receipts and file nearly 1, 000 FOIA and Open Records Law requests for the raw data. Bring catalogs of sports equipment with you. Product code numbers from vendors and state athletic associations will tell you exactly if the bat you’re looking at on the invoice is for softball or baseball. If in doubt, ask the athletic director (AD).

Remember also that the AD’s secretary is your friend. Sergeants run the military, foremen the factories and these grossly underpaid women are the silent hands guiding most high school sports programs.

Many dislike what they see, feel powerless to make changes, and will point you toward young women and their parents who have complained in the past. I came away feeling most of these clerks would make great athletic directors.

Counting the athletes

To show discrimination under Title IX, you must know how many boys and girls play sports, and then compare that to the ratio of male-to- female students. It’s the first plank of Title IX, a formula embedded in the law.

I designed a simple survey form listing every possible high school team — from bowling to judo — and sent it to the 129 ADs, return postage paid. All they had to do was pencil in the number of boys and girls on their teams, plus the names of coaches. If they don’t do that, tell them their archrival next door did. They’re competitive souls by nature and don’t like being upstaged. Don’t forget to ask about the junior varsity and ninth-grade teams.

At most schools, however, you will have to find the rosters yourself. If the school lost the lists, try yearbooks (counting the players in the photos), and corroborate numbers with kids who actually played on the teams. Do not trust your own sports department’s agate, which often lists the kids who played, not the total number of students on the team. Do not count team managers, water boys or cheerleaders as “athletes.” Under the law, they’re not.

To compute spending, you might have to forgo electronic databases. Here, they rarely exist and, when they do, they’re encoded in obscure education software packages dating to the mid-80s, sometimes written by long-retired clerks.

To chart athletic spending, I had to build a unique, interconnected network of Access and Excel databases with more than 64, 000 individual entries to document spending patterns. To make sure I was completely accurate, I mailed my findings to schools a month before the story ran. Most district officials don’t know how tax dollars are spent on athletics, and there is little oversight by school boards (unless the sport in question is football). A lack of spending on girls’ teams isn’t proof of Title IX violations, but parents love to see where the cash is going. Put it on the Internet so everyone can take a peek.

Never trust budgets. In a pilot survey of 25 schools, we compared the budgeted spending for female teams compared to actual expenditures. They were off by more than 70 percent. ADs routinely shift spending throughout the year from girls to boys, especially to football. School officials will try to tell you that budgets “are pretty close to the real spending.” Don’t believe the hype.

Talk to girls. Teenagers are often, like, maligned as bad interviews because, like, they’re, like, kids, and stuff. But ask a young woman to detail how she’s treated compared to boys in her school and she becomes an erudite, poignant chronicler of daily discrimination. Adolescents are hypersensitive about how they stack up against their peers, and they don’t mind talking about it.

Coaches and referees, however, remain dependent on mercurial athletic directors for their pay and often prove reluctant to say on the record what they truly feel. Parents often have a grudge against a coach or AD, so be careful of their motives. Talk to the girls first.

Defend your stories

Be prepared to defend the stories in your own newsroom. You might need to explain to sports reporters how the numbers in your database belie statements from sources they respect. Coaches, in fact, might ask them to help kill your stories, or at least nix scrutiny of big programs. Don’t give in.

We were helped by Hall of Fame football coaches who believed strongly that kids should be treated equally, regardless of gender, and they weren’t reluctant to scold their colleagues. Many athletic directors know more about federal discrimination law than the Title IX “coordinators” in their schools, and they can become allies when you need to sell the story to your editors.

It will help also to focus on the positive along the way. We found nearly a dozen schools where Title IX worked. Girls and boys had equal chances to play in sports. If an official told me he didn’t have the time or money to expand female sports, I could always point to a poor, rural or city school that managed to do it, simply because they tried.

You will find yourself becoming an expert on gender law, high school sports, the education beat and number crunching. At the end of this project, if you know how many umpires ref a junior varsity softball game, as well as the difference between mean, mode and standard deviation, then you’re on the right track.

In hindsight, the applause from young women and their parents is gratifying, but the sheer grind of producing a comprehensive Title IX story will test the patience of reporters and editors alike. If your readers want to follow the money, it might take months to simply record the data needed to get started, much less flesh out the stories that give the figures meaning.

We also lost valuable time by failing to bring the graphics and computer systems pros in early. My reporting was bogged down by the need to input the data from the schools.

To save time and toil, hire two data entry clerks to key the same entries. A temp brought in late in the process made mistakes — like any person — and I had to uncover the errors while doing the math in Excel. In the end, I probably retyped 90 percent of the temp’s work. Double entry would have proved an easy way to catch mistakes — and saved hours better earmarked for sleep.

Carl Prine began working on special projects for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2000. Before joining the Tribune-Review, he was a reporter for the Daily Reporter in Greenfield, Ind. He has won numerous awards and has worked as a freelance correspondent in Africa for The Christian Science Monitor and other publications.

This story is reprinted with permission from Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting. Check out their Web site at www.ire.org.

IRE offers a discount on subscriptions to the IRE Journal for high school newsrooms. To find out more, send an e-mail to journal@ire.org.