Wednesday, January 30, 2008

End of the Road for Cincinnati Rowing?

It seems that the final shoe has fallen on the University of Cincinnati rowers' efforts to reinstate their team. As readers know, Cincinnati cut the rowing team (and replaced it with lacrosse) in the fall of 2006, coincidentally (or not?) after the rowers filed a complaint against the University for failing to provide adequate equipment and facilities. The rowers then challenged the University's decision to cut rowing, arguing that it was unlawful because the reduction in opportunities for women athletes would bring the University out of compliance with Title IX, and because of the seemingly retaliatory nature of the decision.

In September, the rowers lost their effort to obtain a preliminary injunction against the cut when they failed to convince a judge that they were likely to win on the merits (a necessary showing for an injunction). The rowers attempted to show that the University would be out of compliance with all three prongs, including proportionality, using a proportionality score that was based on the "duplicated" athlete head count (where athletes who participate in more than one team count once). But relying on the unduplicated count (number of actual athletic opportunities), that OCR says is correct, Cincinnati's athletic opportunities are proportional even after cutting rowing. So the judge denied the preliminary injunction, predicting that the rowers would not win on the merits.

This turned out to be the right call. Last week, the court granted the University's motion for summary judgment and dismissed the rowers' claims. The court affirmed that using unduplicated head count, the university complied with prong one and thus could lawfully cut a women's team. And even though the rowers seemed to no longer be pressing their argument that the University cut rowing in retaliation for their efforts to secure better equipment and facilities, the court noted "the absence of any evidence that the University's actions were motivated by exercise of Title IX rights."

I think it's unlikely the rowers would appeal this decision. An appellate court is unlikely to reverse the lower court's decision to follow OCR's instructions on how to measure proportionality. And even if the rowers could convince the district court that the retaliation claim was still active, the judge has sent a pretty clear signal that he doesn't think that argument has merit.

It must be terribly disappointing for these rowers, or any student athlete, to lose their team in the middle of their college career. I hope they are able to stick with the sport as a club or by transferring to other programs. Perhaps Cincinnati, and all universities that cut active sports, could have done a better job at long term planning to avoid the situation of having to downsize. But on the legal question, however, this case reaches the right result. Title IX protects women's sports from cuts when (and only when) women get less than their fair share of athletic opportunities. It does not afford this protection when the university is in compliance. Nor should it -- out of fairness to all teams, and because the autonomy that comes with compliance helps motivate universities to comply.

Decision is: Miller v. University of Cincinnati, 2008 WL 203025 (S.D. Ohio Jan. 22, 2008).