Saturday, January 20, 2018

SMU Rowers' Lawsuit Challenges Inequitable Medical Treatment

In a lawsuit filed yesterday, eight current and former members of the women's rowing team at Southern Methodist University allege that the university violated Title IX by giving female athletes less medical attention than their male counterparts. The lawsuit, which also includes a negligence claim, seeks damages related to hip injuries that they suffered as a result.

According to the press, the plaintiffs allege that athletic department trainers and medical staff failed to diagnose their injuries and treated them inadequately once they had. The injured rowers were also silenced by a culture of "intimidation and shame," they claim. One rower gave an example that she was to injured to row, walk, sit or stand for extended periods of time.  Instead of seeking medical help, her coach asked her if her mattress was too firm. The rowers suffered labral tears in their hips, which they allege is a rare injury in the sport of rowing, but which afflicted up to fifteen SMU rowers. The high incidence rate, they claim, resulted from the improper rowing technique that their coach employed, combined with the lack of medical attention. One rower told the press, "I am almost positive that if there were 15 football players or 15 basketball players that had the same injury by the same coaches in eight years, I do not believe [SMU] would have let that go on." 

Title IX requires athletic departments to not only provide an equitable number of opportunities to male and female athletes, but also to ensure that men's and women's programs receive equal treatment. Title IX regulations itemize a list of factors that comprise the equal treatment analysis, and access to medical treatment is included on this list, along with things like facilities, uniforms, equipment, scheduling, quality of coaching, and others. In this case, the plaintiffs allege, SMU added rowing to balance the numbers, but did not follow that up with the necessary investment of resources needed to ensure equal treatment. 

It's common for judicial and administrative cases involving equal treatment to uncover evidence of inequitable access to medical treatment, but I'm not aware of any other lawsuit seeking damages for specific injuries that resulted from the inequality.