UPDATED 6/17/18 at 10:23 am.
Two female student-athletes at Eastern Michigan University are suing the school, asking the courts to force the school to re-instate the recently disbanded women’s tennis and softball sports programs.
This year EMU announced it would eliminate women’s tennis and softball, along with wrestling and men’s swimming and diving to help address serious budget concerns which the school blamed on declining public funding and declining enrollment. The 2018 women’s tennis and softball seasons are already over. EMU says the elimination of the sports programs will effect 58 male student-athletes and 28 women student-athletes.
Court documents say EMU discriminates against female students by “providing substantially fewer and poorer opportunities for women in sports than for male students.”
Jill Zwagerman is the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the federal Title IX lawsuit filed Friday. Zwagerman says Title IX regulations require university athletics participation rates to mirror student body populations by sex. By that standard, she claims EMU has been noncompliant with Title IX for years. She says EMU has more female students overall, but more men participate in university athletics.
EMU isn’t adequately accommodating women who want to play sports, according to Zwagerman. She says the elimination of softball and women’s tennis exacerbated discrimination against female student-athletes and throws EMU even further out of compliance with the law.
“We have an already established tennis team and an already established softball team, and student athletes who still have an interest in playing that sport. And because they’re already out of compliance with the participation numbers [EMU] can’t cut female sports when there’s an interest,” Zwagerman said.
The two women named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit face a situation where continuing to play softball at other schools is unlikely, or would require still more sacrifice. Though EMU has previously said it will help current and incoming student-athletes contact other schools to seek athetic opportunities, and continue to honor the scholarships of student-athletes affected by the budget cuts.
Marie Mayerova is listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Court documents describe Mayerova as a rising senior who’s played tennis at EMU since her freshmen year. According to court documents, Mayerova is a native of the Czech Republic studying on a student visa that only allows her to attend EMU. Because of that and other reasons, the documents contend there’s no viable alternative for Mayerova to play tennis other than at EMU.
The other plaintiff named in the lawsuit is Ariana Chretien. Chretien recently finished her sophomore year at EMU, where’s she’s played softball for two years. Court documents say Chretien “received interest” from other schools considering her for recruitment after EMU announced it would eliminate softball. But Chretien is studying aviation, a major supposedly not offered at many other schools.
In a statement, EMU says it believes its actions to eliminate four sports teams because of budget constraints are "wholly appropriate and justified," and that EMU is reviewing the lawsuit and works hard to maintain a commitment to non-discrimination. The statement says the number of athletic opportunities now offered at EMU is similar to other schools in the Mid-American Conference. Read the entire statement below:
As we have stated previously, the decision to eliminate four sports programs was extremely difficult. We initiated the action to reduce expenses in athletics consistent with strategic reductions across the university. These efforts are part of a comprehensive process to realign our budget to ensure our ability to continue to invest in key priority areas, such as high demand academic programs that meet the needs of today's employers, and to modernize the facilities in which the programs are taught.
It is important to note that previously Eastern had 21 sports, which was more than any other university in the Mid-American Conference (MAC). We do not have the largest budget. In fact, we have one of the smallest. Our new total of 17 sports puts us in the middle of the pack of the MAC and allows us to provide a solid level of support for each of the 17 programs.
We recognize how difficult this decision has been for the 83 student athletes (58 male and 25 female) who were participating in the four canceled sports. We have great respect for all of them, including the two students involved in the lawsuit. Of the 83 students initially affected by the decision, several have graduated and others have moved on to other schools.
We believe our budgetary actions in this matter are wholly appropriate and justified. We are currently carefully reviewing the lawsuit and will respond further at the appropriate time and manner.
Eastern Michigan University is committed to an environment of non-discrimination, and works hard to maintain and expand that commitment as evidenced by our non-discrimination statement:
Eastern Michigan University does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, ethnic or national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, age, ancestry, disability, military status, veteran status or other non-merit reasons, in admissions, educational programs or activities and employment and complies with all applicable federal and state laws regarding nondiscrimination and affirmative action, including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
Zwagerman doesn’t believe the university can’t afford to fit women’s tennis and softball into its budget. She says the cost of a program like women’s tennis probably pales in comparison to football, where mostly men participate.
“You cannot maintain a good-faith defense that you can’t afford a women’s tennis team… when you keep football.”
Zwagerman says she wants the courts to force EMU to fully reinstate the women’s tennis and softball programs.
“Whether or not we can get those kinds of damages is a little unknown at this point. I don’t think it’s been done before.”
This story has been updated with a response from EMU.