Equal Opportunity to be a Student-Athlete: NCAA Demographics Reflect Improvement

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Online Master of Athletic Administration

Cross country runners at the starting line


The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) supports college athletes by bringing its members, who are colleges and universities, together to discover and implement beneficial strategies, competitions, and sportsmanship. The NCAA is made up of 1,121 members consisting of roughly 500,000 student-athletes, allowing them access to unique statistics from as early as 1980.

Their research, provided in the 2016 NCAA Sports Participation Rates Report as well as in their demographics database, has reflected changes and growth within the student-athlete participation and demographics in accordance with the progress of civil equality. Since the federal law Title IX was passed in 1972, a law enforcing equal opportunity for women and men in collegiate athletics, student-athlete demographics have been adjusting to mirror its effects.

It’s important to understand Title IX does not require male and female sports to be equal in size and finances; it requires equal opportunity and consideration for male and female sports. Differences are natural and equality is found through an organic balance, not a forced one. The same can be said for racial differences within college athletics over the past thirty-five years, as student-athlete participation has shifted in favor of a more balanced, diverse group.

Using raw data provided by the NCAA, positive results can be seen as racial and gender restrictions have fallen away, revealing a more balanced, organic reality of student-athlete participation.

Male and Female Participation

According to the 2015-2016 NCAA data, there are at least 486,000 student-athletes that have participated in college athletics; the most ever. This total includes both male and female participation; although males still make up 56.5 percent. This may be due in part to America’s passion for football which continues to have the most participation. Besides football as the exception, male and female participation has grown ever closer to equal representation.

In the 1981-1982 school year, there was a 102,665 student-athlete difference between male and female athletes, with males being the majority. In the 2015-2016 school year, that discrepancy was reduced to 63,087 due to a 229 percent increase in female student-athlete participation. In thirty-four years, the number of female student-athletes increased from 64,390 to 211,886, significantly greater than the 64 percent increase in male student-athlete participation.

This data is important because it shows a clear desire in females to participate in college athletics. In a short amount of time, female student-athletes closed the gap substantially even though participation grew for both genders. It is a balancing act that, according to the annual minimization of separation in male and female participation, may take another fifty years to reach complete equal representation. Also, that is only if equal representation is the organic result. Natural equality through equal opportunity may be reached even sooner.

Improved Racial Equality in Student-Athlete Participation

Drawing results from data given by the NCAA Demographics Database, participation has shown improved equality within college athletics. Due to the vast amount of data representing gender, race, sport, and division, observing differences within some of the most popular sports helps visualization. In this case, comparing the total number of black female and male student-athletes with white female and male student-athletes participating in basketball during the 1999-2000 school year and the 2015-2016 school year.

In the 1990-2000 school year, 59.4 percent of male and female student-athletes playing basketball were white, and only 30.5 percent black. Only seventeen years ago, there was a notable separation in race participation, but it is important to note there may be many reasons. This data can be misleading because the correlation is vague. However, it is helpful when comparing it to the 2015-2016 school year.

In the 2015-2016 school year, the percentage of white student-athletes dropped to 45.8 percent, and the percentage of black student-athletes grew to 39.3 percent. Not only did the percentage of participation grow closer over fifteen years, but the data shows 15 percent of student-athletes do not associate with black or white as a race. The results can be interpreted differently, but there are two clear conclusions. Student-athlete participation is representing race more equally, and there are more student-athletes comprised of other ethnicities they associate with.

Athletics can reflect the American civil equality progress, and improvement has been notable. Athletic officials and administrators have the privilege and responsibility of upholding opportunity regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender. It is their discernment, however, that allows athletics to grow naturally and reflect the landscape instead of trying to control it. Looking at the data, America definitely has strong student-athlete participation comprised of young adults who are passionate about their sport.

Learn More

Ohio University Online Master of Athletic Administration program specializes in developing interscholastic Athletic Directors, building on the students’ passion for serving young student-athletes and running a highly-successful athletic department. Ohio University is a pioneer in sports education. By establishing the first academic program in the field of sports administration, this online program is recognized today as the premier professional training program for candidates seeking careers in the sports industry.

Recommended Readings

The Benefits of Interscholastic Athletic Programs
How Does Diversity Affect The Performance of Sports Teams?
Benefits of Expanding College Athletic Facilities


National Collegiate of Atheltic Administration, “Student-Athlete Participation Report”
National Collegiate Athletic Association, “Sports Sponsorship and Participation Research”
National Collegiate Athletic Association, “Title IX Frequently Asked Questions” 
National Collegiate Athletic Association, “What is the NCAA?”