Monday, September 24, 2012

The NCAA Crisis: Don't Believe Everything You Read on the Internet

Chart via Mother Jones
(Don't even believe this chart! I'll explain below!)

The internet has spread some vicious rumors.
Did you know that you won millions of dollars in a foreign lottery?
Or that Facebook was supposed to shut down on March 15, 2012?
Or that Title IX is the reason that intercollegiate men's gymnastics has disappeared?

The last one bothers me. A lot. Now, hear me out. I am not necessarily fanboying over Title IX. (Read: I do not eat my meals wearing a Title IX bib, for example).

Nevertheless, I do believe that we need to think critically about the arguments being made against the 1972 amendment, and for me, that means clearing up some of the rumors.

What is Title IX anyway?

Call me presumptuous, but I'm guessing that you've heard of Title IX if you're reading this blog. So, I am not going to bore you with too many details. It suffices to say that Title IX is an Education Amendment passed in 1972, which aims to prohibit sex discrimination in educational programs and activities at educational institutions that receive federal funding. Its purview includes sexual harassment issues, college admissions, educational employment, among other things.

Oh, yeah, how could I forget? It covers college athletics, as well. In 1975, equality was defined as, "[w]hether the selection of sports and levels of competition effectively accommodate the interests and abilities of members of both sexes." In 1979 that changed, and universities had to prove one of the following:

  • Substantially proportionate athletic opportunities for male and female athletes;
  • A history and continuing practice of expanding opportunities for the under-represented sex; and 
  • Full and effective accommodation of the interests and abilities of the under-represented sex.

When most people talks about Title IX nowadays, they are referring to the three prongs, and usually the first prong. Most reformers believe that proportionality is a major problem for NCAA sports. Right now, college campuses are predominately female, and if the undergraduate student body is, say, 54% female, then, its athletics teams should be 54% female. In order to achieve parity, some universities have cut men's teams, and the court has allowed this to happen.1 According to the reformers, this is a sign that universities are discriminating against males.

That's the argument in a nutshell, and I'll return to it in another post. For now, let's take a look at those rumors.

Questionable Data

In 2011 the Daily Bruin printed an article that alludes to Title IX's role in the elimination of UCLA's men's gymnastics team. As you read part of the article, see if you can identify the statistical error.

Peter Vidmar came to UCLA in 1979, competing for men’s gymnastics, though he said it often seemed like the male and female gymnasts were all on the same team. Aside from the women’s athletic facilities being housed in a temporary building, he didn’t remember noticeable discrepancies in terms of funding or equipment.

A year after graduating, Vidmar was one of three Bruins on the gold medal-winning 1984 Olympic team. The UCLA men’s gymnastics team won the NCAA championship that same year, and again in 1987.

But in August of 1993, facing serious budget cuts, the university announced plans to cut the men’s and women’s gymnastics teams along with the men’s swimming and diving teams.

Although Title IX was not included in the stated rationale for eliminating any of the programs, the women’s team threatened legal action on the basis of the gender equality law.

By November, UCLA announced a four-tier plan to enhance opportunities for female athletes, which included reinstating the women’s gymnastics team.

Collegiate men’s gymnastics, meanwhile, was steadily dwindling. By 1996, there were 32 varsity teams left in the country, down from 234 in 1969...

It's the last part.

There were 234 varsity teams in 1969?!?!?

That's news to me! No wonder they call it a newspaper!

Seriously, though, where the F did this statistic come from? Title IX detractors love it, and I'm seeing it in article after article. Yet, the NCAA is not confirming it.2

Okay, so maybe the number of teams didn't dwindle from 234 to 17, but they still dropped from 124 to 17, right?

Not exactly. Prior to 1981, the NCAA collected data on its member schools every 5 years. The statistics included both varsity sports and "recreation programs." (It's hard to say exactly what constitutes a recreation program. Probably club teams like Harvard's, which was still active in the 1970s. But it could encompass schools with panel mats and an old gym teacher who wears tube socks and polo shirts that show off his hairy chest and who tells his kids to turn cartwheel after cartwheel between drags of a cigarette.) From 1981 onwards, the NCAA collected data only on varsity sports.

Can you see the problem? We do not know how many of those 124 institutions had varsity teams in 1971, and since our metric has changed (all "programs" to varsity programs), we cannot compare the statistics.

The NCAA even agrees with me.

The best we can do is say that the teams were whittled down from 79 in 1981 to 17 in 2012. It's not quite as sensationalist as saying, "234 programs were whittled down to 17." Nonetheless, that's still a lot of whittling.

P.S. If that 1969 statistic is true, then, a lot of damage was done before Title IX. 234 gymnastics programs (of all kinds) dropped to 124 prior to 1972. Just sayin'.

Questionable Conclusions

So, that takes care of one rumor. (At least in my mind it does. You can form your own your opinion. And like I said, don't believe everything you read on the internet.) Let's take a peek at another article. This one's written by Karen Owoc of the College Sports Council, an organization that actively seeks to reform Title IX. She writes:

More than 2,200 men’s athletic teams have been eliminated since 1981 to comply with the proportionality prong of the 1979 Title IX Policy Interpretation (a rigid affirmative action quota system). Thousands of male athletes have been prohibited from participating in collegiate sports while men’s athletic scholarships and coaching positions have evaporated. The law, which was designed to end discrimination against women, is now discriminating against men. For example:


212 men’s gymnastics teams have been dropped since 1969 (2,544 roster positions lost); only 18 NCAA programs remain (216 roster positions).
[There's that darn statistic again.]

Every men's gymnastics program that has disappeared after 1972 is the result of Title IX and discrimination?

If you have ever taken a class that involves statistics, you probably have heard your instructor say, "Correlation does not equal causation." But maybe you did not understand what s/he meant, so let's look at the classic example.

You decide to do a survey of the entire US population, and you want to study the relationship between shoe size and reading. (Not what you thought I was going to say, was it? Perv.) You find that those with smaller feet do not read as well as those with larger feet. But does that mean that having smaller feet causes you to read worse? No, it just means that you included a bunch of first and second graders in your data. That's why there is a correlation between big feet and reading well.

In the case of men's gymnastics programs and Title IX, we do not have a shoe-reading case; we cannot easily dismiss the claim that the amendment played a role. At the same time, we cannot just say, "Because men's gymnastics programs started disappearing after 1972, Title IX was the sole impetus for cutting men's programs."

(The same could be said for the Title IX chart at the top of the page. Just because Title IX happened does not mean that it caused the U.S. women to win more medals.)


History is not that simple. It is not like there was Title IX, and there was men's collegiate gymnastics, and the rest of the world did not exist.
By the way, I love how the USA, Canada, Central America, and Mexico are labeled as if they were their own continents.

In my opinion, other factors must have been at work. But whatever could they be?


The U.S. Economy! 

To hell with the U.S. economy!

Tomorrow we will talk about how the U.S. economy could have played a role in the disappearance of men's gymnastics programs. Now, you'll have to excuse me while I go have dinner with Ben Bernanke.


1. In Cohen v Brown University (filed in 1992 and concluded in 1996), the First Circuit ruled that universities can bring themselves into compliance by reducing opportunities for the overrepresented sex.
2. All NCAA statistics come from Erin Irick, NCAA Sports Sponsorship and Participation Report, 1981-82–2010-11


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