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Why does the NCAA say David Shaw is a white woman?

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He is a black man.

Stanford football coach David Shaw walks on the field before a game against USC in 2018. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

The story you’re about to read isn’t the one I set out to write.

In 2016, the NCAA announced an initiative to improve diversity in athletic departments. School presidents and conference commissioners were encouraged to pledge their participation. It has its own permanent and updating webpage to track signees. Back in May, I set out to check up on what progress had been made, if any, in the three years since the pledge was unveiled.

Finding out would mean diving into this robust demographics database. Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to work with. I was actually impressed. It let me separate and view Division II, FCS, or just FBS Group of 5 schools. I could break down the numbers by just one sport, or track every sport the NCAA sponsors at once. If there were any trends, no matter how minimal, creating some sort of takeaway should have been fairly simple.

So I started tinkering. And then, while looking at a chart of Power 5 football coaches from 2016, ‘17, and ‘18 — the years since the pledge has been in place — this caught my eye:

NCAA demographics database

At the P5 level, there’s a ... woman listed? After cycling through the five leagues to find which conference, I got down to the Pac-12 in 2018 and — holy shit.

NCAA demographics database

The schools aren’t named in the database, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who’s who by working backwards.

NCAA demographics database

A Pac-12 non-HBCU private school in California with the mailing address 641 East Campus Drive. Hmm...

/opens Google

Copy ... paste ... search ... result:

Stanford Athletic Ticket Office
641 E. Campus Drive, Stanford, CA 94305

Unless I’m mistaken, Stanford’s football head coach, David Shaw, is a black man. He’s pretty memorable: There are too few black men in head coaching roles at FBS programs. But Shaw is a black man. And this database says he’s a woman. A white woman, at that.

After playing around a little bit more with the database, I found more. Slivers of women, all over the place. Here’s a snapshot of what all of FBS looked like in 2016, ‘17, and ‘18.

NCAA demographics database

In this three-year period alone, the NCAA’s database lists 28 different Division I programs with at least one woman working as a football coach. I gotta give some props here, because if this were true, major college football would be a progressive beacon in the American sports landscape. But the only woman who actually coached DI football in 2018 was at Dartmouth, where Callie Brownson made history as a quality control coach.

Yet according to the database, USF had a woman as its defensive coordinator in 2017. Michigan had three women assistant coaches in 2018. Georgia Tech had three in 2016. Arizona State had three, Michigan State had three, Missouri had one, Houston had three, Syracuse had three, and on and on. These errors aren’t confined to football. I found a few more instances in men’s basketball and baseball.

So, uhh, what the hell is going on here?

Stray data errors are understandable side effects when the NCAA tries to do anything at an organizational level. It’s no easy task to balance the needs of a national organization composed of over 1,000 schools.

Self-reporting this diversity data each summer is just one part of a school’s responsibility to update their full department profiles with the NCAA to reflect what happened in the previous academic year. Each athletic department is required to disclose a whole bunch of statistics, including how many students played in games across all sports, how many contests each sport played, enrollment numbers, scholarship allocations, and academic accreditation.

Different departments at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis can then cherry-pick what they need for any number of purposes. The championships department uses it to determine student-athlete eligibility. Finance uses it for revenue distribution. Governance uses it for compliance. You get it.

The final responsibility, at the school level, for assembling this data package and reporting it can fall to a number of people: an assistant athletic director, or the school’s head of compliance (sometimes that’s the same person), or the department’s senior woman administrator. Some schools have an institutional researcher on staff who inputs it into the NCAA’s system. Before it’s submitted, it might get rubber-stamped by a school president or the athletic director. There’s no standard way this is done. (Again, more than 1,000 schools.)

To fulfill NCAA requirements, schools have to match athletic department staff up with certain job buckets the NCAA uses to define different administrative jobs. This can get hairy when a person in a department has multiple roles but one job title. (For example, imagine a staffer titled as an associate athletic director who also serves as the school’s compliance officer.) This process will never be truly standardized across the membership; best efforts sometimes involve approximating someone’s highest title.

One Group Of 5 athletic administrator, who estimates it takes him at least 40 work hours to assemble these reports, said it’s his department’s biggest project in a given summer.

“It’d be very easy to make a mistake,” the admin said. “I’ve probably made a mistake on that report at some point. It really is just me putting it together. And you’re manually entering it all, so of course mistakes can happen.”

This isn’t to say that this is a bad method to collect the data. Multiple staffers we spoke to agreed on that. It’s just that there doesn’t seem to be a great method to do it either. We’re talking about cataloguing hundreds of athletes and dozens of coaches. And for the demographic component, if an ethnicity is in question or goes unreported, the guideline is to count the person as other/unknown.

“It does seem kinda silly if you think about it,” the Group of 5 admin said. “There are no checks and balances for it, really, other than the president and athletic director signing off. And I don’t think we’ve ever been audited on it before. Nobody’s ever called us out and been like, ‘I wanna see how you came to these conclusions.’”

So earlier this summer, I called the NCAA, in search of the staffer who’s publicly listed as the contact person for the database. After nearly two months of unreturned emails and phone calls, I got routed to a PR person. They sent a statement that included:

We do a review of the data in August, only to make sure there are not glaring issues with what they submitted. If we see something that draws a question, we will contact [the schools] to make sure what they submitted is accurate. We also allow them to make any necessary changes if needed when we contact them.

Earlier this week, we reached out to eight FBS schools with women listed as football coaches. Before publishing this piece, we heard back from five. Three said they weren’t aware of the database errors, and none had been contacted regarding those errors by the NCAA. A spokesman for the fourth said that while he personally hadn’t been contacted, it was plausible someone else in the athletic department had and the question was better directed to the NCAA.

When informed of David Shaw’s misclassification, Stanford (the fifth) told us, “Coach Shaw was listed correctly in the documentation we submitted to the NCAA as part of our Sport Sponsorship and Demographic Report for 2018-19, specifically July 2019. Also, the NCAA did not reach out to ask us to correct this information or inform us there may have been an issue with what we provided.”

For at least a year, David Shaw has been a white woman. That’s a pretty big little lie.

Let’s go back to the pledge. Remember, we’re trying to use NCAA resources here to develop a snapshot of progress made on an NCAA initiative.

By signing that pledge back in 2016, schools committed to “establishing initiatives for achieving ethnic and racial diversity, gender equity and inclusion, with a focus and emphasis on hiring practices in intercollegiate athletics, to reflect the diversity of our membership and our nation.” They promised to “identify, recruit and interview individuals from diverse backgrounds,” to increase representation.

In other words, this pledge was intended to help create more David Shaws.

123 of FBS’ 130 schools have signed the pledge as of mid-August, per the website. The holdouts: Notre Dame, Boston College, East Carolina, North Texas, Middle Tennessee, Florida International, and Georgia State.

BC spokesman Jack Dunn said the Eagles didn’t feel like the pledge went far enough at the time:

A deep commitment to diverse campus communities already exists. The task is to act,” Dunn wrote. “Many colleges and universities have voiced the same concerns about the pledge. It strikes many of us as a feel-good measure that will not address the issue.

The NCAA won’t compel its membership to hire or interview minority candidates for open positions. That would mean affecting the hiring processes of public institutions in every state. Oregon’s the only state that has anything close to a college Rooney Rule, signed into law in 2009. It says that public schools in the state must interview at least one minority candidate for a vacant head coaching or athletic director role. It’s non-binding, without recourse for not complying. But Oregon State did say it complied “as always” during its most recent football head coaching search, before settling on Jonathan Smith, who is white.

As you go higher on the leadership pyramid of college football programs, the demographics of the sport effectively flip. 130 FBS teams will take the field in 2019, with only 12 of them led by black head coaches. It’s a pathetic number for a sport where the player pool has been at least 40 percent black since the NCAA began tracking it in 1999, and now hovers around 50 percent. Further down at the assistant level, more errors can be found, which makes statistical sense because there are more coaches in these ranks. But that’s the level where diversity really matters if we ever hope to swell the representation of minorities who can work their way up to one day become head coaches.

So why should we care about this database? This wouldn’t really be a big deal, but remember that this data is used, and what it’s used for.

It is impossible to declare progress using these numbers, with the knowledge that such glaring errors exist at a level where they are so easy to tease out. And this isn’t some grand conspiracy. There’s no gain here from saying a football coach is a woman when he very clearly is not. These mistakes appear to be a collection of isolated incidents, but when they’re woven together they create a tapestry of incompetence. If the NCAA isn’t auditing the database, then the data can’t be used reliably. If it’s not right at the top, what are we supposed to think about the data at smaller schools with even more stretched athletic department staffs in Division II and Division III? And if that’s the case, what a waste of a lot of work hours at a lot of college athletic programs.

And remember, the NCAA wants people to know about these numbers. There’s even a suggested citation at the bottom of the database to use if you’re writing a book or an academic paper or another research project.

But where the NCAA really likes to use these numbers is in PR. The gains may be incremental where they occur, but even small increases in representation are publicly celebrated, despite the fact that the NCAA can’t be bothered to check its own basic math.

When marginal progress is highlighted by the NCAA, they link out to a database -- you know the one. It shows how far college athletics has come, and how far it has to go. It also says David Shaw’s a white woman.