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Mistakes mar equity reports

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A federal law intended to shine light on whether colleges treat male and female athletes equitably is mired in mistakes, interpretation errors and bureaucratic neglect 10 years after its passage, a USA TODAY investigation has found.

Of the nation's highest-profile athletic programs, more than 34% had at least one error in the 2003 and 2004 total revenue and expense figures kept by the Department of Education under the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA). The errors range from a few dollars to a $34million data-entry mistake in the University of Texas report. The law requires all schools and the Education Department to make the figures public.

The NCAA is not only aware there are errors but maintains an adjusted set of records that it declines to make public.

Of the 119 NCAA Division I-A schools, 41 had errors. There are other problems: Five community colleges are classified as Division I-A schools in the Education Department's data; a Division I-AA school also was classified as I-A. The University of Arkansas has no data for 2003 even though the school says it filed its EADA report.

"The big thing is, (the EADA) allows scrutiny we can't get from any other source," says David Ridpath, executive director of The Drake Group, an organization of faculty and others that lobbies for academic integrity in college sports.

"That's important when you have an athletic department within an educational institution. Is it right to spend this kind of money on athletics? And if you're going to, is it at least being spent responsibly and fairly?" says Ridpath, an assistant professor in sports administration at Mississippi State.

USA TODAY also found:

*The NCAA collects an even more detailed financial report from its member schools, which is used to generate the EADA report for schools. Aware of problems, the NCAA hires a consultant to ferret out and correct errors but refuses to give the corrected data to anyone, even the Department of Education, citing privacy for its members, according to NCAA chief financial officer Jim Isch.

Isch could not say when or why the privacy policy was made, but a new committee is looking at reforms -- including making some of the data public.

*While colleges comply with the EADA, some oppose the requirements because it costs time and hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to prepare reports that don't accurately reflect schools' athletic budgets. Schools complain that the reporting wanders too far from standard accounting practices and has little to do with how athletic departments function.

For example, some schools pay the athletic department's electricity bill and can't break out athletics' share, let alone what portion was spent for women's teams. So the cost of electricity might be included in one school's EADA report but not another's. Capital expenses such as construction costs may or may not be included, depending on the department's budget methods.

*A bill proposed in Congress would place similar reporting requirements on high schools, but it is not expected to get out of committee this session, House Education and the Workplace Committee spokeswoman Alexa Marrero says.

Before Congress passed the EADA, private schools had no requirements to disclose details about athletic funding. Such scrutiny takes on added importance in an era when many athletic budgets are growing faster than overall university budgets.

Peter Likins, president of the University of Arizona and chair of a new NCAA subcommittee on fiscal responsibility, says athletic departments are a small part of university budgets, but because they are highly visible, accuracy is crucial.

"Athletics requires a special level of attention," Likins says. "It has higher salaries, higher visibility ... and a danger of reaching a point where athletic enterprises cast financial obligation on academics."

'We never ... correct old data'

Such scrutiny can't take place unless there is accurate accounting, say those who use the numbers, including college administrators, academics, researchers and activists. Even Congress gets an annual report that uses the numbers.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., says in an e-mail it is "troubling" so many of the numbers are wrong after 10 years of reporting requirements: "It's essential ... to have reliable information on gender equity in college sports so that we can deal with the discrimination that still exists."

Retired Rep. Cardiss Collins, D-Ill., who co-authored the EADA, says the point was to make it easier for anyone to judge whether schools were treating athletes fairly. Title IX -- which bans sex discrimination at schools receiving federal funds -- had been law for 22 years in 1994, but she and others were still hearing complaints that women weren't getting enough practice time and men's sports were getting the bulk of the money.

"Women weren't getting their fair share, and we felt it was necessary to get people to follow the rules of Title IX; we needed an accounting," Collins says. "This is a little frustrating."

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., goes further. She says she believes many of the errors are intentional to make it look as if colleges are doing more for their female athletes than they really are.

"I don't think those (errors) are by chance at all," says Slaughter, who has offered the bill that would extend reporting requirements to high schools.

The EADA reports include details such as revenue and expenses for high-profile sports such as football, as well as lesser-known sports such as field hockey; and breakdowns by gender of athletic scholarship and recruiting expenses, participants and coaches. Colleges face a $27,500 fine if they don't turn in the reports, though it's never been enforced. By law the reports must be turned in by Oct. 31.

"We have not ever had a process to clean old files. We never go back and correct old data," says David Bergeron, policy and budget development director for the Education Department's office of postsecondary education.

The Education Department posts figures from the most recent reporting year on its website, which the department says it updates if schools request changes. But those changes are not reflected in permanent records.

For example, the University of Hawaii's 2004 revenue has been fixed online, but the database still undercounts it by $13million. Texas A&M's 2004 revenue listed online and in the database were still off by $4million at press time.

The error rate calculated by USA TODAY reflects discrepancies between the permanent records and data schools said they provided when contacted by the paper.

Data not double-checked

Most of the schools contacted were unaware there were discrepancies in the Department of Education's database. For them, working to get the report in on time is hard enough; few double-check what's actually posted.

"There's a huge amount of frustration among those who have to produce the reports. The guidelines that are out there are very challenging," says Ed Goble, associate athletics director at the University of Texas, where internal documents for 2003 differ from the Department of Education's database by $34million.

"It's the wrong number on the wrong line item," Goble says after looking into the error. "I doubt it happened here, but wherever it happened, you would think someone at some level who is accumulating the data would say, 'Hey, that's a significant difference.' It should have prompted a call."

But nobody checks, least of all the Department of Education.

"We just collect the data, post it and move on. We don't question it or edit it," Education Department spokeswoman Jane Glickman says. The reports are considered "a snapshot in time," she says.

University budgets are enormously complicated, and each school has a different method of counting things that don't all fit conveniently on a form.

Also, school fiscal years vary, and at some schools the finance departments are scrambling to meet the deadline before the university's books are finalized for the year.

The differences can be big: The University of North Carolina's report was off by $2.5million in 2003, in part, because of a debt payment adjustment after the deadline, says Martina K. Ballen, senior associate athletics director for business and finance.

Schools aren't immune to errors either.

At Los Angeles Pierce College, a community college mistakenly thrown in with the national powers, someone double-counted a category and -- at least on paper -- tripled the athletic budget. At San Diego State, "a liberal interpretation of a category" gave the athletic department a $20million boost between 2003 and 2004, associate athletics director Al Zitlau says.

And at least a half-dozen schools confirmed the wrong data the first time reporters checked.

The disclosure law took effect in 1996 as a way to force schools to show how much money they spend on male and female athletes, and the Department of Education has been posting the data on its website since 2002. The reports' inaccuracies are frustrating for those who use the data to scrutinize schools on fairness.

"It's not rocket science. This shouldn't be that hard," says Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel for the National Women's Law Center, which has used the department's numbers to challenge schools on fairness in scholarships.

"We often get a response from schools saying the numbers are wrong," she says. "And we say, 'But you provided these numbers. If they're wrong, that's your fault.'"

Question of purpose

The EADA reports may suffer from a breakdown in mission.

The Education Department maintains the reports have nothing to do with Title IX, which is a legal standard. Even so, some Education Department memos to schools offering EADA help specifically say the reports help schools with Title IX requirements.

"There's no confusion in our office as to what it's for," Bergeron says. "It absolutely does not have anything to do with Title IX. This is strictly a consumer disclosure."

In other words, the details of the reports -- from coaches' salaries to team counts -- are for prospective students and their parents to help them decide which college is a good fit. Bergeron says the schools are a better source for previous-year reports.

The reports, Bergeron says, are actually part of Title IV, which includes requirements for schools that receive Pell grants and other financial student aid, which is why schools that provide such grants, even private ones, are required to comply with the EADA rules.

Bergeron also says that if Congress wanted the data to be more accurate, it could have opted to have them collected the same way campus crime is reported: three years at a time, with schools able to correct previous years' figures.

"When we implement the law, we assume Congress knows what they're doing," Bergeron says.

Chaudhry agrees the numbers are intended for prospective students but says the EADA is important for much more than that.

"It is a sunshine law ... it is about equity," she says. "The information shines light on how equitable these athletic departments are. Of course it is important that this information be accurate. People are relying on this information."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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