Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Eastern Michigan Must Reinstate Women's Teams

A federal district court in Michigan has issued an injunction against Eastern Michigan University that will prevent it from going forward with its plans to cut women's softball and tennis teams.  The university had announced plans last year to cut those teams, along with two men's teams, wresting and swimming and diving.  However, as the court correctly determined, cutting the same number of men's and women's teams is not gender equity when men have disproportionately more athletic opportunities to begin with, and continue to have a greater share of opportunities once the cuts have taken place.

The undergraduate population at EMU is about 60% female, yet the distribution of athletic opportunities favors men, 56:44 percent. Accordingly, EMU did not try to claim compliance under the proportionality prong. Nor did it argue that it complied under the third test that calls for the absence of unmet interests and abilities among members of the underrepresented sex -- a decision the court validated by pointing out that EMU's elimination of women's programs creates the very unmet interest the third compliance prong requires to have been satisfied.

Instead, EMU argued that the average number of athletic opportunities over the last five years was greater than the average number over the five year period before that, thus satisfying compliance under the second compliance prong, which calls for "history and continuing practice" of program expansion for the underrepresented sex.  Of course, the court saw through the this arbitrary comparison of averaged data, which only served to mask the fluctuation up and down of the number of female athletic opportunities. This compliance prong calls for steady growth, which EMU's numbers did not show. In addition, EMU's most recent addition of a women's team was rowing in 2000 - hardly evidence of continuing practice. Though EMU also tried to claim credit for increases to female athletic opportunities under its roster management plan -- i.e, expanding the rosters of its existing women's teams --  the court rejected this as well because EMU could not show that such increases were "responsive to the developing interests of the underrepresented sex" as this compliance prong requires. Upon concluding that the plaintiffs had demonstrated likely success on the merits as well as the other factors consider when deciding on a preliminary injunction, the court ordered that the university must reinstate the eliminated teams. 

EMU's argument about compliance under the second prong was so astonishingly weak in my opinion, that the outcome here was hardly surprising. The court's thorough analysis, however, is helpful to addressing misconceptions about the second compliance program. In addition, the court's order to reinstate eliminated teams should provide a cautionary tale for any college athletic program that thinks cutting an equal number of men's and women's teams is equitable when women are already seriously underrepresented.

Decision: Mayerova v. Eastern Michigan Univ., No. 2:18-cv-11909 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 27, 2018).