Despite students never trying out for women’s rowing, the UW counted them on the team in its report to the Department of Education for several years.

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The University of Washington listed Cassie McMaster as a member of its 2013 women’s rowing team. But McMaster says that not only has she never practiced with the team, she never even stepped into a boat.

Although McMaster didn’t contribute to the crew team on the water, the UW did benefit by counting McMaster on its official roster. Her name and others were used to help the school show compliance with Title IX, a federal law requiring schools to offer equal athletic opportunities for women and men.

A Seattle Times investigation found dozens of women who appear to have not been on the women’s rowing team but whom the UW counted as crew participants in reports to federal officials over the past several years. The Times spoke with eight of those women who, like McMaster, said they weren’t on the crew team and did not know that UW had counted them as a member until they’d been told as much by a reporter.

The discrepancies raise questions of whether UW athletic officials have artificially inflated the women’s crew roster to meet Title IX requirements and maintain federal funding.

Kristen Galles, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who specializes in Title IX lawsuits against universities, reviewed The Times’ findings and said it appears as if UW is “fraudulently fudging their numbers to make it look like they are closer to Title IX compliance.”

UW Athletic Director Jennifer Cohen, who stepped into the role last year, said she was unaware that there might be issues with roster reporting and was concerned by what The Times had found.

“I remember hearing that our participation numbers were absolutely spot on,” Cohen said in a January interview. “The fact that you are calling women, and they are saying that (they weren’t on the team), I can’t tell you how disturbed I am right now.”

Cohen referred further questions to UW athletic spokesperson Carter Henderson, who defended the way the university counted its athletes.

“After thoroughly reviewing documents from the years you have inquired about, our Compliance office has found that no individuals were intentionally added … without meeting minimum participation criteria and being documented by athletic department personnel,” Henderson stated in a Feb. 23 email.

UW Athletic Director Jennifer Cohen, who stepped into the role last year, said she was unaware that there might be issues with roster reporting for the women’s rowing team. (University of Washington)
UW Athletic Director Jennifer Cohen, who stepped into the role last year, said she was unaware that there might be issues with roster reporting for the women’s rowing team. (University of Washington)

That however doesn’t explain why UW counted at least eight women who said they were never on the team in 2013 or 2014.

Title IX is part of a 1972 federal law that prohibits gender discrimination and states that universities must show that female participation in sports is substantially proportional to the overall female undergraduate enrollment. If roster numbers are inflated, it potentially takes opportunities away from women to play in other sports.

While the average reported size of an NCAA Division I rowing team is 64 women, UW has, on average, reported to the U.S. Department of Education that 145 women participated in rowing each year from 2010-2014.

The NCAA allows 20 rowing scholarships, and schools typically race several eight-person and four-person boats. In 2011, UW reported to the Department of Education a total crew of 181 women — the second-largest team in the NCAA.

Erin O’Connell, a UW senior associate athletic director hired last fall, agreed that the size of the 2011 roster was odd, even when considering walk-ons and its novice teams. Part of her job is to handle Title IX issues.

“How did we have 181 kids try out?” said O’Connell, a former UW coxswain and later an assistant varsity rowing coach at UW until 2003. “I asked about this once I came in, and that coach is no longer here, and so no one had an answer for me.”

The Department of Education hasn’t released the nationwide participation numbers for the 2015-2016 school year, but UW told The Times that 143 women were on the rowing team as of the first day of varsity competition. The UW crew is competing in the Lake Las Vegas Collegiate Invitational this weekend.

Cohen, who has worked much of her 18 years at UW raising money for the athletic department, started as athletic director in June. She said she didn’t want to speculate how the previous coaching staff and administrators reported team totals. She suggested that a Seattle Times reporter “pick up the phone and call Scott Woodward,” UW’s former athletic director.

Woodward, who is now Texas A&M’s director of athletics, declined to comment. Former UW rowing coach Bob Ernst, who was forced out in 2015 during his 42nd season due to complaints about his coaching style, and current UW crew coach Yasmin Farooq also declined to comment.

Former UW rowing coach Bob Ernst was fired in late 2015 due to complaints about his coaching style. (University of Washington)
Former UW rowing coach Bob Ernst was fired in late 2015 due to complaints about his coaching style. (University of Washington)

The Times took the women’s crew totals UW created for reporting to the Department of Education and compared them against a roster the school published online. The Times found the difference from the online roster ranged from 51 to 112 students each year from 2010-2015.

The women The Times interviewed who said they didn’t know they were on the team were part of the 2013 or 2014 tally submitted to the Department of Education as part of the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA).

EADA requires universities to annually report information like operating expenses, student financial aid and participation in each sport. A notably large roster for a women’s sport is among the red flags that warrant further investigation, Galles said.

The EADA guide states a participant is a student who, on the first day of a varsity competition, is on the varsity team or receiving athletic student aid or practices with the varsity team and receives coaching. This includes students who are on junior-varsity, freshman and novice teams during a season that runs in the fall and spring.

McMaster said all she did was attend an informational meeting with 40 other women before quickly realizing it was too much of a commitment.

“I went, and they took my height, and that was about it,” said the senior.

Nevertheless, UW claimed that McMaster was one of 142 women to participate on its 2013 team, a total that Galles questioned.

“There’s no way that’s true,” she said. “They should be exposed for it.”

O’Connell defended the reported numbers by saying that some of the participants in the fall had quit by spring.

Cohen said UW is Title IX compliant and that its recent equity report found it only needed to add more locker rooms for women in soccer and track. In the past five years, UW has not been investigated for discrimination in its athletic programs, a Department of Education spokesman said.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigates a school if an official complaint is filed. While the penalty for noncompliance with Title IX is the withdrawal of federal funds, the Department of Education has never withheld funding, Galles said.

“It’s a paper tiger,” she said.

Often if a school has violated Title IX, the OCR will enter a resolution agreement with the school to give it an opportunity to fix the problems.

 

Protecting football?

In the fall of 2013, women on the UW varsity rowing team handed out fliers on the campus’ Red Square and encouraged students to attend an informational meeting and later try out for the team.

Clarice Kim, a sprint kayaker in high school, thought she could transition to rowing. Yet after the informational meeting, she knew it wasn’t the right fit.

“It was a tour, and Q&A session, and it was about workout time and schedules with school,” said Kim of the meeting. She added that she never went into a “shell” — the narrow racing boat. “I never tried out for the team.”

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Trinell Carpenter, after the first informational meeting, said she immediately knew she couldn’t join the team because of the demands of her pre-med classes and her physical stature.

“Well, I’m 5-4 and not quite tall enough and I’m not light — I’m 140 so I wouldn’t be coxswain,” she said.

Still, UW considers Kim and Carpenter, who are now seniors, as members of the 2013 team on its master list that is used to tally the total women participating for EADA.

McMaster, who is studying political science and women’s issues like Title IX at UW, said she’s offended that her university included her on the 2013 roster.

“I understand they need to meet a certain quota to get funding, but I think it’s totally wrong,” McMaster said. “If the purpose is to have equity in sports, then it’s not meeting its intended purpose in rowing or for the school.”

Tom Newkirk, a civil-rights attorney in Des Moines, Iowa, said that instead of following the law to give women more opportunities to play athletics, universities will pad their female rowing rosters so they can have more football players.

“Sports is absolutely a man’s world,” Newkirk said. “It’s the dark ages. You are fighting upstream.”

Newkirk in 2016 filed a federal lawsuit in Iowa’s Southern District against the University of Iowa on behalf of a senior associate athletic director who claims she was fired after voicing concerns about potential Title IX violations and gender discrimination. Newkirk said four students also filed complaints with the Office of Civil Rights.

The Office of Civil Rights has an ongoing investigation into the University of Iowa’s sports programs and allegations that it artificially boosted the number of women on its rowing team, he said. The University of Iowa reported 89 female rowers in 2014 to the Department of Education.

Newkirk contends UW’s inflation of its rowing team year after year should be treated as an “offensive, flagrant violation” of Title IX.

Tim O’Brien, a Maine lawyer hired by more than two dozen universities to help interpret Title IX rules, said there should be scrutiny into how UW is counting students.

“If a person attends just an informational meeting and is not receiving athletic student aid and hasn’t been practicing, then you’d have to question what led the institution to believe that person was entitled to be counted as a participant,” he added. “The count has to be in the spirit of Title IX.”

 

The crew meets with then-interim coach Conor Bullis after practice in April 2016.  (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
The crew meets with then-interim coach Conor Bullis after practice in April 2016. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

 

Consistently large team

In the spring of 1907, Hiram Conibear started UW’s first women’s rowing team, insisting that the sport should be offered to both men and women. While it lasted only a few years, the women’s team re-emerged as a varsity sport in 1975, following the passage of Title IX. The UW’s women’s team has since won three national championships, most recently in 2001.

Data UW submitted to the Department of Education over the past several years show the school has consistently fielded one of the four largest rowing teams among NCAA Division I schools.

EADA requires schools to report their roster tally on the first scheduled date of varsity competition or when the race counts for results. Galles said that first day of competition must be against another collegiate team, but UW provided The Times with a list of early races that didn’t include varsity matchups for three recent years.

If UW had counted the number of women on the team during the first intercollegiate race, which was later in the season, its total count would have been lower because some of the women would have quit by then.

Ohio State, a three-time consecutive NCAA women’s rowing champion, recruits on campus for walk-ons and had 100 women try out last fall, said its Associate Director of Compliance Briana Fields.

She said she doesn’t count a student who practiced only a couple of times at the beginning of the school year or quit before the first varsity competition against another collegiate team, which is typically early November.

Following EADA guidelines, Fields said, Ohio State also doesn’t count any student added to the team after the first competition when it reports total participation. UW includes those students, Henderson stated in an email.

Galles said UW’s larger problem is that its female participation in sports is not proportional to the female student enrollment, as required by Title IX.

The Office of Civil Rights stated in a 1996 clarification letter to universities and colleges that if the number of women a school needs to add in order to be in proportion is more than the size of a team, then it doesn’t comply.

Based on UW’s self-reported participation in athletics to the EADA in 2012, it needed 63 more women in all athletics to make it Title IX compliant, and in 2014 it needed 30, Galles said. Both are large enough that UW should have started a new women’s sport, such as lacrosse or field hockey, she said.

UW did add beach volleyball in 2013. It currently lists 16 women on the UW’s athletic website.

Seven of the past 12 years, UW has had a disparity large enough that it could have added a female sport, according to a Times analysis of UW reported EADA data.

“Even if they count all the people they want they still are in violation of Title IX,” Galles said.