Title IX: Falling short at 50

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: USA TODAY

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-02-03

Language: English

Authors: Kenny Jacoby, Rachel Axon, Nancy Armour, Steve Berkowitz, Lindsay Schnell, Dan Wolken, Alia Dastagir, Jessica Luther, Jim Sergent, Andrea Brunty, Todd Pendleton


Our team included reporters and editors from USA TODAY’s investigations, news and sports desks, as well one freelancer, who spent more than a year working together on the project. Investigative reporter Kenny Jacoby and sports projects reporter Steve Berkowitz handled the bulk of the records requests, data gathering, database building and data analysis. All of the reporters leaned on their beat-area expertise to put the results of our data analyses into context. Graphic illustrators Jim Sergent and Todd Pendleton turned our data into stunning visuals. Designer Andrea Brunty created the look and feel of the project.

Project description:

USA TODAY exposed how the nation’s largest and most recognizable universities violate Title IX on the 50th anniversary of the landmark federal law banning sex discrimination in education. They underfund women’s sports to the tune of just 71 cents for every dollar spent on men. They shortchange women on athletic opportunities and scholarships, and they rig roster numbers to inflate their count of female athletes. Their understaffed Title IX offices struggle to investigate sexual misconduct. Some schools discourage women from reporting incidents. Few offenders are suspended or expelled. Schools violate Title IX with impunity because of toothless federal enforcement.

Impact reached:

Our series led to major changes in the California State University system. CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro resigned amid pressure just two weeks after we published our first story in the series. CSU’s Fresno campus announced it would hire two full-time deputy Title IX coordinators and a second survivor advocate, launch a task force to improve Title IX processes, and engage in a “series of efforts” to understand and improve the campus culture around sexual violence. The CSU Board of Trustees commissioned an outside assessment of CSU’s Title IX practices and reformed its “retreat rights” policy that enabled problematic administrators to avoid termination. The California state legislature ordered an audit of four CSU campuses’ Title IX and human resources programs.

At Marshall University, students marched on campus and demanded a meeting with the campus president, who announced two days later that the school would begin the search for a new Title IX coordinator, restructure its Title IX office and strengthen its procedures.

Officials from the National Women’s Law Center, It’s On Us, Know Your IX, and Public Justice said our first-of-its-kind data analysis countered the narrative that schools weaponized Title IX to unfairly discipline male students for sexual offenses. The Trump administration cited such claims to pass new federal regulations limiting schools’ ability to find alleged perpetrators at fault. Those regulations could end under rules proposed by the Biden administration.

The series also prompted action in the area of women’s sports. Four members of Congress introduced a bill in December seeking to address the problems we exposed: specifically, disparities in athletics and the lack of federal enforcement. The legislation, called the Fair Play for Women Act, requires more public reporting of athletic data by schools and gives the Secretary of Education the ability to fine schools for violating Title IX.

Techniques/technologies used:

We used a range of data analysis techniques from complex web scraping to old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting to methodologically prove that colleges perpetuate systemic inequities in Division I sports and turn a blind eye to campus sexual misconduct.

Reporters collected data from universities and the U.S. Department of Education through a combination of public records requests, by downloading it from websites and by and writing Python programs to scrape rosters from schools’ athletic department websites and from the Track & Field Results Reporting System.

We used Tabula and Google Pinpoint’s “Extract structured data” tool to extract data from PDFs. We used the optical character recognition (OCR) tool of the Python library “tesseract” to extract text from some scanned and flattened PDFs and make it selectable.

We also manually entered reams of data, including the dollar amounts of multiple athletic department purchases from photocopied receipts, into Excel and Google spreadsheets.

Assembled into various spreadsheets, the data formed the basis for our analyses revealing how universities disproportionately divvy up scholarship money, count male practice players as women, shortchange women’s teams while spending lavishly on men, and fail to hold accountable perpetrators of sexual misconduct.

We studied complicated legal guidance to learn the mathematical formulas federal investigators use to assess Title IX compliance. We identified loopholes in the their methods that allow schools to comply with the letter of the law but not its spirit. We showed the harm behind the numbers by finding and earning the trust of female athletes who had faced discrimination and students who had experienced sexual misconduct.

We used Infogram and Adobe Illustrator to visualize the data into charts, graphs and other features allowing readers to interact with the numbers. We used hand-drawn illustrations and Adobe Photoshop to produce a graphic novel-type story explaining how schools rig their rosters.

Context about the project:

At a time of unprecedented assault on women’s rights, universities should be bastions of enlightenment. Instead, they perpetuate antiquated notions about women and their bodies, especially when it comes to sports and sex, USA TODAY showed in a series of stories that built a damning case against higher education’s commitment to gender equity.

The idea for the series was conceived in summer 2021, after we had just published more than 40 stories over eight months detailing systemic mishandling of sexual misconduct by Louisiana State University’s Title IX office and athletic department.

USA TODAY editors and reporters wondered if LSU was an outlier or the norm: Did other universities similarly violate Title IX?

With the 50th anniversary of Title IX being signed into law just over one year away, we set out to examine the extent to which colleges were complying with the law. Although Title IX requires schools to crack down on sexual harassment and assault, it’s best known for opening the door for women athletes to play college sports. So the team investigated compliance with both areas under the law.

We began by defining the scope of our project. With more than 4,000 colleges nationwide, we decided to focus on the most recognizable – the 107 public institutions in the NCAA’s Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, which includes some of the largest and wealthiest schools in the nation. We then launched our data-collection effort by sending waves of public records requests to each school and to the U.S. Department of Education, downloading publicly available data from websites and scraping other numbers where we could.

The data, some of it gathered in one place for the first time, proved invaluable. We were able to identify broad patterns of systemic discrimination in athletics and reveal a dismal track record of investigating and adjudicating sexual misconduct reports. We also were able to pinpoint specific schools meriting closer attention. Two of those schools – Fresno State University in California and Marshall University in West Virginia – became the focus stories that sparked immediate outcry and significant change.

We faced numerous obstacles along the way. Several universities refused to give us data or charged us exorbitant fees. Some claimed not to have the information we sought. Some provided only partial data. Reporters spent more than a year haggling with universities. The Department of Education also dragged its feet providing records, taking more than a year to fulfill some of our requests and still owing us dozens of documents. We hounded top officials at the federal agency for months before gaining access to the head of the Office for Civil Rights for interviews. Despite their reluctance to talk or share records, no university or federal official disputed our findings or requested corrections.

While other news organizations covered Title IX on its 50th anniversary, USA TODAY’s series was by far the most comprehensive examination yet of how universities have fallen short of the law’s promise.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

Sometimes the most powerful stories are hiding in plain sight.

It was certainly no secret that universities prioritized men’s sports over women’s. One need only look at the outsized share of resources and attention lavished on college football to know the scales have long been tipped in favor of men’s athletics. Or to read study after study showing that 1 in 5 college women report being sexual assaulted at some point during their higher education to know that universities have failed to make campuses safer.

These are not intractable problems or the unfortunate byproducts of our historically male-dominated society. They are illegal practices under a federal law that turned 50 years old last year. We used the law’s anniversary to expose exactly which universities were violating Title IX, how they were doing it and showed the harm suffered by women whose athletic opportunities were diminished and sexual assaults minimized.

By putting hard numbers and real faces to the issue, we were able to rescue these wrongs from the realm of the intangible and show how they’re actually perpetuated by universities that, for five decades, have resisted doing the right thing to fix them.

Journalists should not shy away from reporting on problems that readers might already accept as “just the way it is.” If they can find a way to prove – with data, with sources, with deft storytelling – that these issues have both identifiable causes and common-sense solutions, they can shift the paradigm and affect societal change.

We believe our project serves as proof of that and hope other journalists find inspiration to look for their own stories in plain sight.

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