Sandy Barbour, the head of Penn State intercollegiate athletics, said she is open to the possibility of the university adding an additional women’s varsity sports team.

The revelation came during her Zoom press conference on Saturday, after I asked her about the athletic program’s challenge — and legal responsibility — of meeting its Title IX obligations to provide equal opportunities for its women varsity athletes.

(I wrote at length about this earlier in the summer. Read that report here.)

Currently, Penn State has 16 men’s teams and 15 women’s teams. The 15 rank No. 2 in the Big Ten Conference. (Ohio State has 19 women’s teams and 18 men’s teams.) However, Penn State is the only school in the 14-member conference that has more men’s varsity teams than women’s varsity teams.

“We need to keep working at it,” acknowledged Barbour, the VP for intercollegiate athletics who recently began her eighth year at the helm after being hired in late July 2014. “We need to really think about how we get to that better place in terms of proportionality.

“You know, maybe that needs to change.

“I will say this: I want to fulfill our obligations from a Title IX standpoint and more importantly to me, our obligations to our female student-athletes by providing them more opportunities, and not in not reducing or impacting the men’s side,” she added. “Because it is — particularly given our number of programs and the nature of our programs — it’s something that is a challenge for us.”

One potential addition at Penn State could be crew.

Many Big Ten schools have closed the gender gap in their campus locker rooms by adding varsity crew teams for women. Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Rutgers and Wisconsin all have varsity rowing programs for women, with the number of participants ranging from 80 women at Michigan State to 171 women at Wisconsin.

Penn State has a club crew team for men and women. The club team practices at Bald Eagle State Park in Howard, on the Foster Joseph Sayers Reservoir. The 1,730-acre lake is located 23 miles northeast of the Penn State campus, with much of the trip easily accessible via Route I-99. 

Other potential additions include wrestling and rugby, since the Penn State rugby team has won multiple national championships, and wrestling, as the number of high school girls wrestling in Pennsylvania is on the rise and the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club is home to women wrestlers who compete nationally and internationally. Jane Valencia of the NLWC competed for Mexico in the recent Olympics.

According to GoPSUSports,com, “The Penn State Rugby program is classified by the University as a Team Sport rather than a Club Sport as is found with most collegiate rugby programs, and as such is located in Penn State’s Intercollegiate Athletics Department. With benefits that include paid coaching and administration staffs, varsity health insurance, athletic trainers at all rugby events, varsity weight room and strength and conditioning coaches, direct medical referrals to PSU team doctors for evaluation, treatment, and rehabilitation, admissions support, and an academic support program, the team gets as much University support as any rugby program in the country, including ‘varsity’ programs.”

Around the Big Ten, Indiana fields a women’s water polo team, while Nebraska has women’s varsity teams in beach volleyball (attention, Russ Rose!), bowling and rifle. Ohio State also fields varsity women’s teams in synchronized swimming and rifle.

PROPORTIONALITY

Here is what Barbour is talking about when she mentions “proportionality”:

According to the latest numbers Penn State submitted to the federal government, 52.9% of the undergraduate students on the University Park campus identified as male and 47.1% identified as female.

According to reports Penn State filed with the U.S. Dept. of Education as part of its Title IX compliance, in 2019-20 Penn State athletics had 966 participants — 540 who identified as male (56%) and 426 who identified as women (44%).

That number for the women includes the counting of 28 male practice players — who take part in practice but not games, mostly (18) with the PSU women’s basketball team — as women. When male practice players are not included, the percentage of female athletes drops down to 41.2%. There is a significant difference between that 41.2% and the 47.1% of the Penn State student body that is women. That is the largest gender gap in the Big Ten.

The federal government calls this proportionality, and it is one of the three major metrics used to measure a school’s adherence to Title IX, the federal law enacted in 1972 that “protects people from discrimination based on sex in education program or activities that receive federal financial assistance.”

(What better way for Penn State, long perceived as a pioneer in women’s collegiate sports, than to meet its proportionality obligation by adding a new women’s varsity sports team on the 50th anniversary of Title IX?)

To make up for that difference, according to my math, Penn State would need to provide 57 more athletic participation opportunities for women varsity athletes at University Park.

In pure participation numbers, in 2019-20 Penn State had 114 more male athletes than female athletes and 142 more males if not counting male practice players as women. That is the largest gender gap in the Big Ten.

WORK IN PROGRESS

Barbour should know the hurdles and challenges that women’s sports have endured for decades on the collegiate level. She was a four-year letter-winner and team captain in field hockey as an undergraduate at Wake Forest, where she also played two seasons of varsity basketball. Before embarking on her career as an administrator that included stints as AD at Tulane and Cal before Penn State, she coached field hockey at UMass and coached both field hockey and lacrosse at Northwestern.

She noted that meeting the Title IX obligations at Penn State is an ongoing effort.

“I don’t think it’s ever met. I think it’s always a work in progress,” she said on Saturday. “There are a number of different buckets, as it relates to Title IX. And one of them is, what are the benefits that are for students, that in this case, the underrepresented sex, are our female students? Someday the underrepresented sex will be men, I promise.

“And, you know, are we providing them on a day-to-day basis with quality coaching, with facilities, with modes of travel? They call it the laundry list. And again, I think that’s something that needs care and feeding every day. But I feel very good about where we are there.”

BEING LAX

Barbour did not mention this, but in its latest report to the NCAA for the 2019-20 season, Penn State listed 50 participants on the men’s lacrosse team and only 36 for its women’s lacrosse team.

For that season, Penn State provided 12.59 scholarships for the men’s lacrosse team and 13.25 for its women’s lacrosse team. Men’s lacrosse players received $827,900 in financial aid from Penn State athletics, while women lacrosse players received $776,194 in financial aid from Penn State athletics.

“The other kind of prominent (measure of Title IX compliance) is the participation rates, and that’s one where I think we’ve struggled,” Barbour said. “The thing I feel good about is that even though we probably have not met the numbers that we need to meet strict proportionality, it’s not because female student athletes haven’t had an opportunity. Our women’s programs are never capped. They’re actually given floors as targets for to help us try to get to the numbers where we need to be from a proportionality standpoint. But I know in my time, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of anything that preceded me, that we’ve ever capped our women’s programs.”

Barbour added that Penn State athletics works on a number of levels to provide opportunities and support for its women athletes that are equal to what is available to men.

“There are a number of things that we’ve done just every day,” she said, “kind of making sure as we check and make sure that things are equitable — whether it’s bringing some of our charter opportunities for our women’s programs, up to snuff, or up to equal, we equal balance or getting closer there. When we made a decision to do cost of attendance, (it was) making sure that that was equitably distributed with all of our women’s programs. I’m sure there are some additions, but those are those are some of the ones that come to mind.”