About five years ago, I heard about some interesting urban growth rumblings in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Some of the locals had discovered that the Cuyahoga River was a great place to have rowing leagues. You know, the sport with coxswains and sculling boats where you use your leg strength to move through yucky waters, all the while trying to avoid the 700-foot Great Lakes freighter with 45,000 tons of cargo on the starboard side.
In other words, it was sort of a more elite version of summer softball leagues, in a river that went up in flames in 1969 and helped start the EPA. “We row on a crooked river that used to catch fire,” one of the longtime women rowers told me. “There’s something very blue-collar and being a scrapper about doing that.”
But there was one thing that was very odd in this movement that seemed more Connecticut country club/preppy than Ohio steelworker/football. Around that time, a number of high schools and clubs were springing up for teenagers who wanted to row, with the unspoken truth that rowing could lead to admission in an elite college—especially for the young women.
One parent told me, “Most of the girls on any high school rowing teams get accepted for a college scholarship of some sort, and if they get that, it can save us about $10,000 to 15,000 a year.”
It wasn’t cheating in any way; it was a response to how the NCAA had changed the college admissions market. College athletics, in response to Title IX requirements that attempted to level the playing field among men’s and women’s athletic scholarships, had decided that the growth of women’s rowing would be an easy way to equalize things.
And of course, this was mostly about men’s football.
In 1990, there were 305 female rowers at 12 U.S. colleges, most of them on some scholarship. Last year, there were 7,277 female rowing spots at 145 schools. But the number of female rowers in high school hadn’t grown that much, something parents had figured out. The odds of your daughter getting into a good school with a discount on tuition were much better if she rowed in the afternoon on a crooked river that used to burn, instead of sitting at home and staring at her phone.
I was reminded of this huge influx of female rowers into collegiate life by the recent “Varsity Blues” scandal. This controversy is rife with intrigue: cheating on standardized testing exams like the ACT, the children of wealthy parents being falsely designated as athletes, and hundreds of thousands of dollars paid in bribes to coaches and admission officers.
The initial reaction was that a few bad apples were spoiling it for the rest of us, and they should be punished for their audacity. But missing from the discussion for the most part was that the college admissions system now allows a number of students to be accepted through the back or side doors, making these bribery cases not the exceptions for a few, but the expected for the many.
“Many sports—particularly squash, lacrosse, fencing and rowing—are pricey to play, so rich kids get opportunities that are out of reach for the poor,” Rick Eckstein, professor of sociology at Villanova University, wrote in The Conversation last week.
“It is not unusual to have 30 or 40 players on a college soccer or lacrosse team,” he continued. “Most will never play. [Women’s rowing teams] often have more than 100 rowers. Most will never get into a boat. Many will quit the team after one season but remain students.”
Many are focusing on how Hollywood actress Lori Loughlin and her husband paid a $500,000 bribe so that their two daughters could be admitted to the University of Southern California as recruits for the school’s women’s rowing team. Prosecutors claim that neither of the girls is actually a rower.
But missing from the discussion is how women’s rowing got so big in numbers—and how so many of its scholarship recipients never even rowed in high school. In fact, Full House’s Aunt Becky was so out of touch with the real world of admissions that the $500,000 bribe she paid to take care of her “social media influencer” daughter most likely wasn’t even needed.
First, a little history. When Title IX was enacted in 1972, college administrators had one thing to figure out when it came to sports. Men’s football had about 100 scholarships for each big-time school. If you wanted to balance out the men’s and women’s sports scholarships awarded, you either had to cut some men’s sports’ scholarships or find a women’s sport to add to the equation.
Women’s rowing was chosen as the football equalizer. Because one race had eight scullers, 60 women were needed for a full rowing team. Those weren’t exactly football numbers, but they were close.
Many schools got on that bandwagon, and women’s rowing jumped by a huge amount in the 1990s. NCAA’s Division 1 rowing had only seven schools with teams and 204 rowers in 1990. By 2000, that had leapt to 82 schools and 4,485 rowers on scholarship. By last year, there were 88 schools with 5,526 women rowers.
The problem with all this is that the number of females rowers did not keep pace with the number of rowers needed in college. In 1990, there were only 688 rowers in high school programs, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Last year, that number had grown to 74 schools with 2,094 rowers, but still far less than what the college needed to fill its boats.
To hear some tell it, women’s crew coaches are handing out scholarships like candy.
The NCAA found this to be somewhat of a problem. “A significant percentage of college rowers participated in other sports during high school and did not begin rowing until college,” it said in a 2015 study. It found that only 46 percent of college rowers had ever even rowed for a high school or a club team during their high school years.
The New York Times noticed this in 2004 and ran a story: “Never Rowed? Take a Free Ride.” They documented a five-foot-nine, 250-pound French horn player and music major who went to Ohio State University and was encouraged to start rowing. “She had never played a sport before. …Finally, she decided to give it a try. Suddenly, she had a new hobby—and a new way to pay her college education.”
In 2007, The Virginian-Pilot put it this way in an article about the University of Virginia women’s NCAA crew team: “To hear some tell it, women’s crew coaches are handing out scholarships like candy.” The piece also noted that because the mens’ team is not NCAA-sanctioned, they are like night and day on campus. “The men receive no funding from the athletic department, have no scholarships to give and ‘tend to live in a very hand-to-mouth kind of way,’ said their coach, Will Oliver.”
Some schools have noticed the problem in recent years. The Seattle Times found that the University of Washington was artificially inflating the women’s rowing roster to meet Title IX requirements in relation to football numbers so it could keep federal funding.
An investigation at the University of Iowa found, “Gender equity advocates say the popularity of college football—a multibillion-dollar industry—has pushed athletic departments across the country to add more benchwarmers to women’s [rowing] teams to comply with Title IX, the federal gender equity law, while avoiding the cost of starting new women’s sports.”
So while the Ivy League elites and Hollywood actresses are being accused of horrible scheming for their own good, it’s the colleges that have set this elaborate scam.
Want a scholarship? Go row. Why the hell not? Just pretend to row. That’s all we need.
Daniel McGraw is a freelance journalist and author living in Lakewood, Ohio.