Friday, June 17, 2011

Female Wrestlers' Case Against UC Davis Goes to Trial

On Wednesday, a federal district court judge in California heard closing arguments in the trial to determine whether the University of California at Davis violated Title IX when it denied opportunities to female wrestlers in 2001. The case has been in litigation for a many years, and we have blogged about it several times (see here, here, here, and here.)

The plaintiffs in this case are three female, former student athletes who wrestled on the U.C. Davis team until they were cut in 2001. According to this article about the trial, there is conflicting testimony about whether then-athletic director told the then-wrestling coach Michael Burch to cut the women, or whether the coach decided to cut the women, who did not contribute points in wrestling meets, after being told by the AD that he had to reduce the size of the team. In response to protest, the athletic director granted them the right to try out for the team. Two of the women tried out but did not make the team, and a third did not try out.

What about this scenario could violate Title IX? On the one hand, the law does not require schools to have coed teams in contact sports like wrestling. And where the contact sport exception does not apply, female athletes athletes are limited to a right to try out for the men's team when it's the only team in that sport. But at the same time, universities have the obligation under Title IX to provide an equitable number of athletic opportunities to female athletes. Thus, UC Davis could have lawfully excluded women from the wrestling team, if it otherwise provided equitable opportunities to women. But because it did not, the plaintiffs argue, eliminating their opportunities to participate in wrestling violated the law.

Thus, what the judge will really be deciding is whether UC Davis's overall distribution of athletic opportunities complied with Title IX. Davis contends that it complied with prong two, which requires it to show a history and continuous practice of expanding opportunities for women. Plaintiffs' witnesses, including women's sports expert Donna Lopiano, testified that UC Davis's history of women's sports, which included going twenty years without adding any women's teams, then adding three at once in 1996, followed by outdoor track in 1998 and indoor track in 1999, does not qualify. According to the same article, however, another women's sports expert, Christine Grant, testified for UC Davis that the university deserved credit for adding three teams at once.

Other issues also bear on the question of UC Davis's proffered prong two compliance. Namely, the judge will also have to figure out whether the university had good reasons in the 1990s to cut two other women's teams and to reject petitions by women's club teams seeking elevation to varsity status. And the judge will have to figure out how much prong two credit to give to the university's decision to add indoor track as a women's sport in 1999. An appellate court has already ruled that a sport does not necessarily have to raise the number of actual athletes in order to count as new athletic opportunity for existing athletes to compete in another sport. But adding indoor track could still be questionable evidence of prong two compliance if it appears that the decision was motivated by the universities interest in efficiency (in that indoor track doubles as an off-season for other running sports) rather than in response to genuine student interest.

The judge's decision is expected in July.