IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa Athletic Department increased its share of women participating on Hawkeye teams last year after a federal investigation.
But large boosts to the rosters of rowing, women’s cross country and women’s track feed criticisms the UI may be padding women’s teams when it should add a new sport.
Women made up 50.8 percent of UI’s student-athletes in 2016-2017, the university reported to the NCAA. While still not equal to the 52.6 percent women made up of UI’s undergraduate enrollment last year, it’s more balanced than the 46.9 percent share of women on UI’s 2015-2016 sports rosters.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights signed a voluntary resolution with the UI in December over a 2015 complaint about gender discrimination in athletics.
Despite noting disparities in how male and female student-athletes are treated, the Office of Civil Rights said if the UI could show its 2016-2017 participation numbers were in line with Title IX and report back this spring on gender equity in five categories — including equipment, recruiting and locker rooms — the OCR probe would be over.
“We feel confident we can answer all their questions in a satisfactory manner,” UI Athletic Director Gary Barta told The Gazette earlier this month. “If they agree, then we’re done.”
Title IX, a federal gender equity law passed in 1972, requires university athletics departments to have sports participation numbers “substantially proportionate” to the percentage of male and female students in the undergraduate population of that institution.
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Between 2015-2016 and 2016-2017, the UI increased the rosters of eight of its 13 women’s sports, with the cross country team growing by 50 percent, track by 43 percent and rowing by 23 percent.
Five men’s sports — basketball, cross country, golf, gymnastics and tennis — had fewer participants in 2016-2017 than the previous year. Men’s cross country lost seven participants, or 28 percent of its roster.
The UI is among schools nationwide accused of inflating women’s sports rosters.
“Instead of adding new opportunities, they started padding some of their women’s teams,” Kristen Galles, a Cedar Rapids native who now practices civil rights law in Washington, D.C., told The Gazette in 2016.
But the UI defended its participation numbers Monday.
“Our goal is to maintain our rosters at a level where everyone is provided a meaningful experience and opportunity to compete, and we do believe that is occurring,” the UI said in an email to The Gazette.
While cross country, for example, allows only seven runners to compete in the Division I championship meet, universities can field a “B” team or have unattached runners at some competitions, the UI said.
The University of Northern Iowa also has struggled to make athletics participation reflect undergraduate enrollment. The university known for teacher training had a 57.7-percent female undergrad population in 2016-2017, but only 48.3 percent of athletic participants were women, according to UNI’s NCAA report.
However, UNI’s female participation rose 1.4 percentage points in 2016-2017.
“It’s not something you can put into place overnight,” UNI Athletic Director David Harris said in a phone interview.
He added he believes it will take three to five years to balance the rosters.
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Iowa State University’s undergraduate enrollment skews male, so their 42.6 percent female athletic participation rate is in line with their population.
None of Iowa’s state universities is in the process of adding new sports. Earlier this month, Barta said, “If and until I feel like we’re funded competitively in every sport that we currently have, it’s really hard for me to look a team in the eye and add another sport when I say to a couple of our teams, ‘I just can’t fund you the way I’d like to.’”
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