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Roster Management Takes Pain Out of Title IX Compliance

Paul Steinbach

If handled correctly, roster management can take the pain out of Title IX compliance.

Few actions cast a greater pall over an athletic department than the cutting of sports programs. And mandating widespread budget cuts isn't much better for department morale, particularly when a large number of coaches protecting their own programs is involved.

Neither measure is desirable, yet for some college and university athletic departments, one or the other has become the unfortunate fallout of Title IX compliance-that tricky business of creating equitable sports participation opportunities for men and women while working with limited resources. Either a men's sports program (or programs) is sacrificed to drop the number of male participants, or all teams are asked to tighten their budgetary belts to free up launch money for a new women's program (or programs).

However, athletic departments whose gender equity numbers are out of whack can spare the ax by implementing a policy that caps the number of participants in men's sports while padding the rosters of women's teams. It's called roster management, and it appears to be the least painful way for athletic departments to comply with the Title IX dictum known as proportionality, in which the gender breakdown among athletes on a given campus must mirror that of the general student body.

"We believe roster management doesn't hurt anybody here," says Cheryl Marra, who supervises all sports programs except football as the University of Wisconsin's associate athletic director and senior women's administrator. "Last year, we implemented roster management, and our men's teams were very successful. It's just a new way of looking at things."

Because it deals with raw numbers, proportionality is the least subjective of three compliance avenues monitored by the Office for Civil Rights, which investigates Title IX complaints. The other two involve a school having to prove it has a history of creating new opportunities in athletics for women (by adding sports teams) or that it has met the interests and abilities of women on campus (by responding to club teams' requests for varsity status). A school must meet one of the three compliance criteria.

Failing to meet the latter two, Wisconsin, which has been under the OCR's microscope since a Title IX complaint was filed against the school a decade ago, turned to roster management as the most politically and economically feasible way to reach proportionality.

Last year, coaches in each sport were presented with target roster numbers, which were then reviewed and adjusted this summer. "Back when this ongoing situation with the OCR began, the student body was at about 50-50," a ratio the athletic department surpassed with slightly more women athletes (50.3 percent) than men last year, Marra says. "Now enrollment is about 53-47, and our incoming freshman class for this year is 55 percent women. It's a moving target."

As it is, negotiating roster numbers among coaches can require as much politicking as a budget process. Men's coaches often feel as though they're being restricted; for the first time, they have to cut players or turn away interested walk-on athletes. Women's coaches, meanwhile, face having to convince more players to fill roster spots, and the additions may not possess the talent or desire of their teammates.

A key to making it all work is an understanding of both the spirit and law of Title IX, according to Elaine Driedame, a former University of Dayton athletics administrator who has spoken on roster management at the past three NCAA Title IX seminars. "A lot of times, you're really not that far off-if you're even counting correctly," she says. When determining proportionality, the OCR looks at the roster number for a given team from the date that team starts facing outside competition through the conclusion of the season.

Pre- and off-season practices, such as spring drills in football, can be open to an unlimited number of athletes. Those cut in fall on the eve of the football season can come back in the spring and late summer for a second shot at making the team. "They don't have to do it, but it gives them an opportunity," Driedame says, evoking the spirit of Title IX.

"You're not taking the opportunity away from the kid. What you're saying is, 'You have to earn this experience. You try out, you don't make it, you keep coming back until you make it.' It's there; it's just that they have to be in the top group. It's a varsity experience instead of an allcomers experience, which is what some of the men's programs have traditionally become."

Perhaps the framework of a sport's season can be altered to maximize practice opportunities for all would-be team members. Dayton's baseball team used to play five exhibition games against other schools in the fall before its season officially began in February. Once roster management was implemented, however, the five games were worked into the main portion of the schedule, allowing coaches to extend their preseason several months and practice longer with a larger group of players. "They're not eliminating games, they're just dealing with timeliness," Driedame says.

Conversely, a softball team may choose to begin its season earlier than usual while enthusiasm is still high among players, particularly those women who have been added for roster management purposes and who may not see much game action or coaching attention later on in the season. It's a way to hit target roster numbers before attrition can set in. "The women want the participants; it's just a matter of trying to keep the women who aren't getting the playing time interested," says Driedame.

Hearing this, a cynic might ask whether roster management is simply making more room on the bench for female athletes. "I don't think so, because it's primarily controlling the men's numbers," Driedame says. "You don't have ridiculous women's numbers because you can't meet them. With volleyball, ask a coach to keep 14 instead of 12. With basketball, carry your full 15. With soccer, have 30 or 35, as opposed to 28 or 30. Then you've got to make sure that they have a full enough complement of coaches to take care of the numbers, because kids will stay with it longer if they're getting coaching attention and feel like they're getting better."

What about injuries? Is a men's team completely hamstrung by its roster limits in the event players get hurt and are unable to play? No, according to Driedame, who says athletic administrators must take into account what is reasonable when monitoring teams' roster management practices. "Let's say your number is 25 and you have two kids who blow out their knee, and you move two kids up. So now you're at 27. I'm not going to have a problem with that for that year," says Driedame. "Do you build it in? No. You have to be flexible with it, and that's within the spirit of what I think equity's about."

Before mandating roster numbers, Driedame recommends getting the coaches together to discuss the facts, then offers a sort of sample pep talk: "We're an institution. We're a program. We have a commitment to both genders. We have a commitment to meeting the law. We have a commitment to providing equitable opportunities."

Are coaches typically receptive? "They are from the point of view that this avoids having a budget cut or dropping a sport," Driedame says. "I think they all know that you have to come to the table to do this," says Marra. "I would say all of them at Wisconsin have made an attempt to do it, but I can't tell you that there aren't some who continue to come back and say, 'Can I get my number changed?' "

Though its number of female students is on the rise, Wisconsin still lags behind the rest of the nation, according to U.S. Department of Education estimates, which indicate that 57 percent of all college students currently enrolled are women. "It's a never-ending game," says Driedame, who faced a swing of 4 percentage points in favor of women during a five-year proportionality plan at Dayton, throwing off team budgets and finances. "And it's predicted to continue, especially at private schools. The percentage of women going to college is going to increase."

And though it's unclear how many athletic departments nationwide are instituting roster management, it remains an attractive option for those seeking proportionality in accordance with Title IX.

Driedame estimates that her seminar presentations have drawn an average audience of 75 athletics administrators, and she adds, "I'm sure anybody who's been in those sessions is doing it. I mean, it would be crazy not to."

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