Colleges Cutting Women's Sports Teams Yield Title IX Lawsuits : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money Several schools have cut women's sports teams during the pandemic, and some of the teams have lawyered up in response. Ultimately, these lawsuits ask the question: how do we measure equality?
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Leveling The Playing Field

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Leveling The Playing Field

Leveling The Playing Field

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. And I am here today with producer Emma Peaslee. Hey, Emma.

EMMA PEASLEE, BYLINE: Hi, Stacey.

VANEK SMITH: So you've brought us a story about one of my favorite topics.

PEASLEE: Yes. Today we are talking about what we all know is your favorite subject, sports.

VANEK SMITH: So for the record, I have nothing against sports, I just don't know that much about it.

PEASLEE: Did you play any sports growing up?

VANEK SMITH: I was on the debate team, Emma.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: And what about you? You seem like maybe you were sportier than me.

PEASLEE: Yes. Sports are huge in my house. We are very competitive. And I think it's in part because, growing up, I'd always hear these stories about my aunt. She loved playing tennis, but there wasn't a girls tennis team at her school. So she tried to play on the boys' team, but they wouldn't let her.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, that's horrible. So she just didn't get to play tennis?

PEASLEE: Well, so she sued the school.

VANEK SMITH: She sued the school?

PEASLEE: Yes. Yeah. It was back in 1972, around the time this legislation you've probably heard of, Title IX, was passed.

VANEK SMITH: So Title IX, we should say, says that schools that receive federal money cannot discriminate based on sex. And it was supposed to fix these huge problems of educational inequality in everything from athletics to admissions.

PEASLEE: And huge strides have been made, but disparities still exist, especially in the last year or so, with a lot of colleges facing financial problems. There's been this continuous decline in enrollment that has been made worse by the pandemic.

VANEK SMITH: And so now, some colleges are turning to their athletic departments and making cuts. Specifically, they are cutting whole teams. And, as you might be able to guess, a lot of these cuts seem to be disproportionately affecting women.

PEASLEE: Today on the show, female athletes are using some old-school tactics and taking their colleges to court.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: When Abbigayle Roberts was just 15, she was recruited to play for the lacrosse team at California State University, Fresno. It was a dream come true.

ABBIGAYLE ROBERTS: I was excited. You know, a girl from Memphis, Tenn., where lacrosse isn't popular, it's not common, it meant the world to me to even be recruited and, like, respected as a lacrosse player to play Division 1.

PEASLEE: And after playing three years of college across, she says, for the most part, her experience had lived up to the hype. That is, until last October, when Fresno State's athletic director announced in a Zoom call the women's lacrosse team was being cut. And to add salt to the wound, he mispronounced their head coach's name.

ROBERTS: And to have our program cut in less than 10 minutes by a man who doesn't even know our head coaches name speaks volumes.

PEASLEE: Abbigayle and her teammates were sad, but they were also really angry.

ROBERTS: I was stunned. I actually ran outside a mile, like, my fastest mile time because I was so mad. For Fresno State to cut our program after everything we've done, like that, like we were nothing, we were discarded, like we are trash. And it - we felt that way.

VANEK SMITH: It didn't feel fair. And when Abbigayle and her co-captain, Megan Walaitis, thought about their time at Fresno State, they realized it had never been fair.

ROBERTS: We practice on what's called the white lot, and that's also used as a tailgating parking lot for football in the fall. So on Monday mornings, when we come out to practice at 8 a.m., we have to walk down the field and walk back to see if there's glass, cans or any trash on our field, so we don't step on glass during practice.

PEASLEE: And while there's no men's lacrosse team, Megan says they still have to share the weight room with football. So then, you know, you have a hundred-plus guys - gets crowded and stuffy. And Megan says sometimes it felt like they were being rushed along in favor of this team that already gets a lot of attention

VANEK SMITH: At the time, they accepted it. It's just how it is. But when their team was cut, Abbigayle, Megan and a handful of their teammates did something they never imagined doing when they came to Fresno State. They sued their school.

PEASLEE: So to clarify, it's not illegal to cut a women's sports team. It just comes down to what it means to be equal.

ARTHUR BRYANT: This is really simple. Title IX is about equality. It requires schools to give women and men equal opportunities, equal financial aid and equal treatment - period.

PEASLEE: This is Megan and Abbigayle's lawyer, Arthur Bryant. He's represented female athletes from at least seven different schools in the past year. And he may be overselling how simple it is.

VANEK SMITH: Maybe. As Arthur mentions, there are a few ways to measure equality in Title IX - opportunity, financial aid and treatment. So let's start with treatment.

BRYANT: They have what they call a laundry list, and it's, you know, equipment, uniforms, supplies, coaching, recruiting - everything you can imagine. And it's supposed to be, analytically, you look at how the men as a whole are treated compared to the women as a whole are treated.

PEASLEE: So you can measure the money being spent on men versus women, but there wasn't a men's lacrosse team. And football jerseys don't cost the same as lacrosse jerseys. And then you have things that don't cost money, like the quality of a practice field or who gets priority for the weight room, how often are they getting priority?

VANEK SMITH: All of this leaves athletes wondering, like, is this kind of thing happening to everyone? And that is really important because a lot of the enforcement of Title IX comes from people making complaints or filing lawsuits.

BRYANT: But most women don't go to school to sue their schools. And they come in, and they see how it is, and they accept how that is, not realizing their rights are being violated until the school does something that directly affects them, like eliminate their teams.

PEASLEE: And sometimes that's easier to measure. Arthur says, when you're talking about cutting a team, what you're really talking about is equal opportunity. So the lacrosse players' lawsuit alleges that there's this gap between the percent of women enrolled at the school and the number of roster spots available to them. So if a school is 60% women and 40% men, that's roughly what the athletic opportunities should be.

VANEK SMITH: Right. But athletics directors are not just thinking about enrollment rates. So Fresno State says it is facing a $6.6 million deficit because of the pandemic, so they've had to make a bunch of difficult decisions, including cutting men's tennis, men's wrestling and, of course, women's lacrosse.

BRYANT: Look? If you're an athletic director, what is your key to getting the job? Certainly. At the big schools, you've got to make money, and you've got to win.

PEASLEE: And in 2019, Fresno State's football program did make roughly $5 million from just ticket sales. And lacrosse didn't bring in nearly as much. It doesn't even sell tickets. Still, it's worth noting that many football teams cost about as much or more than they bring in, including at Fresno State.

VANEK SMITH: Still, Kristine Newhall, a professor of kinesiology at SUNY Cortland who writes about Title IX, says those details about costs and ticketing might matter for the school's bottom line, but they do not matter for Title IX.

KRISTINE NEWHALL: The way people cut programs is that I think that a lot of people in athletics are like, you know, look at the number, like, the money numbers, right? And in Title IX, you have to look at different numbers because money doesn't matter. Is that a bad thing to say on an economics podcast? (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: She's off. We're cutting it short.

(LAUGHTER)

PEASLEE: Kristine says whether a sport makes money or loses money doesn't mean the school can violate Title IX, you know, federal law.

VANEK SMITH: Right. So schools can cut teams, but it has to be done equitably. So how do you do it?

NEWHALL: You make unpopular cuts. And you get backlash that says you're being unfair to men.

VANEK SMITH: As of right now, the Fresno State lacrosse players have at least won a preliminary battle. The court found the school had deprived the team of equal treatment, and for the remainder of the season, had to give them a dedicated locker room and practice space, along with funding equal to other teams. But the team was not reinstated, and that part of the lawsuit is still ongoing. In a statement, the school says, quote, "the Department of Athletics will ensure continued efforts toward Title IX compliance as a result of these reductions."

PEASLEE: But some of the damage has already been done. The team went 2-12 this season, which is their worst record in years. And even if they were reinstated, a significant number of the players have opted out or transferred.

This episode was produced by Dave Blanchard, with help from Gilly Moon. It was fact-checked by Sam Cai and edited by Kate Concannon. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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