Thursday, May 05, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Cutting women's teams

This is not really a throwback Thursday, but it feels oddly nostalgic to write about Title IX and the cutting of women's sports teams. Not in a good way, of course. Cutting teams is always a difficult process, but it has not been nearly as much of a Title IX issue recently. But as the recent announcement from St Cloud State University (Minnesota) shows us, cutting women's teams is not a thing of the past.

Five members of the women's tennis team at St. Cloud have filed a Title IX lawsuit against their university. The team is one of six that has been cut from the list of varsity intercollegiate sports in an effort to deal with budget shortfalls.

The university currently provides just under 120 more opportunities for men to play sports. The undergraduate student enrollment is nearly 50/50 men/women. This does not automatically mean they have been out of compliance; they could have been expanding opportunities for women or sufficiently meeting the interests and abilities of the female undergraduate population in terms of sports and opportunities provided.

It does mean, however, that with the cuts they must--post cuts--be adhering to prong one, in which the athletic opportunities provided reflects the male/female ratio in the undergraduate population. In other words, next fall there should be equal athletic opportunities for men and women at St. Cloud.

The numbers will surely be in dispute at pre-trial hearings and a trial, if it gets there. Here is what my basic math revealed:
Men are losing, based on the cuts alone, 92 spots (tennis and all track programs), bringing the total opportunities to 226. Women are losing 24 spots (tennis and skiing) bringing their opportunities to 178.

The asterisks on these numbers include the following:
1. As in any of these calculations, the numbers can change. The number of undergraduates enrolled, especially.
2. Specific to this case, the university, when making the announcement two months ago, said it was going to reduce the number of roster spots on 7 teams and increase spots on 6 others. I do not know exactly  where these additions and subtractions will occur or if it will be a zero sum game.

The university has said it will increase the roster for women's track to 90 from 60. The data I was using, though, said women's track was at 73 members, not 60. But if we add 30 to the reduced opportunities, it brings the number for women to 208. Lawyers for the tennis players (one of whom is also representing former Duluth hockey coach Shannon Miller) do not like this solution. They feel the university is using this to count the same athlete as many as three times (cross country, indoor track, outdoor track) and not really increasing opportunities.

Even if this is not legally wrong, I expect the university will have to respond to questions about this plan, and reveal their other plans sooner rather than later, i.e., when they go to court next month to deal with the request for an injunction.
Because, yes, the women have asked for a temporary injunction against the cuts that affect the opportunities for female athletes until the legal issues are resolved. That request will be heard on June 3. They are also seeking class action status.

It is possible that the university's intention to reduce spots on the football and baseball team along with increasing the numbers on the track team will bring them into proportion.The question remains though whether they can so drastically increase the women's track team. We have seen some sketchy roster management around women's track. Even if the lawsuit is not successful because the university has a plan for proportionality, they will certainly be on notice that they have to effectively and legally execute that plan.

One final thought: as I read the articles about the lawsuit I got the impression that these cuts were the proverbial final straw for many female athletes who feel the athletic department has not been treating them equitably. The cuts may have felt like such a tangible and actionable move, and some women are using the opportunity to illustrate the inequities. But even if the university brings itself into compliance with the quantity of opportunities, they may not be providing a similar quality to women. I sense quality is also an issue at St. Cloud. If it is, a complaint filed with OCR might be worth it to address the inequities other female athletes may be experiencing.