Rowing to Title IX Victory: Court Rules in Favor of UConn’s Women’s Rowing Team

Leah J. Reynolds, Ed.D, TNG Associate

Summary of facts:

In June 2020, the University of Connecticut (UConn) decided to reduce its $42 million athletic deficit by 25% over the course of three years. To accomplish this, UConn planned to cut several sports within the athletic department, including women’s rowing. Men’s swimming and diving, men’s cross country, and men’s tennis were also among the sports eliminated from UConn’s athletic department.

At the time of this decision, the women’s rowing team had a roster of 38 opportunities, yet they had 62 participants in the program. The total operating expenses for women’s rowing were $1,345,104 during the 2020 fiscal year. UConn’s administration reported that budgetary concerns influenced the decision to include women’s rowing in the group of sports to be eliminated.

Several student-athletes from UConn’s women’s rowing team filed suit requesting the court to grant a temporary restraining order that would prohibit UConn from eliminating the women’s rowing team. The court decided in their favor and granted the temporary restraining order.

Significance:

The suit alleged that eliminating the women’s rowing program would place UConn in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

The court first addressed the complainant’s substantial likelihood of success on the merits. In rendering a decision, the court relied upon Title IX regulations 34 C.F.R, part 106, that state:

No person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, be treated differently from another person or otherwise be discriminated against in any interscholastic, intercollegiate, club or intramural athletics offered by a recipient, and no recipient shall provide any such athletics separately on such basis.”

Courts rely on the three-prong test in determining whether a university is providing effective accommodations based on student’s interests and abilities. Prong one is satisfied when the intercollegiate level of participation opportunities for male and female students are substantially proportionate in numbers to the institution’s enrollment numbers. Prong two is satisfied when an institution can show a history of continuing practice of program expansion to attract athletes for the sex that is under-represented within the intercollegiate program of the institution. Lastly, prong three can be attained when an institution can demonstrate that the interest and abilities of the members of the sex that is under-represented are being fully and effectively accommodated by the present programs offered at the institution. 

Universities have the option of selecting which prong to follow to maintain compliance with gender equity in athletics. UConn followed prong one, substantial proportionality. In following prong one, an institution does not need exact proportionality to that of their enrollment numbers. Instead, there be no participation gap large enough that a viable team can be created to make the athletic opportunities substantially proportionate to the institution’s enrollment numbers.

The courts found that there was compelling evidence that suggested UConn inflated the numbers of the women’s rowing team for several years to demonstrate the institution was meeting prong one compliance and that UConn’s data also demonstrated that the participation gap over the past 13 years was large enough that a viable team could have been created. Therefore, eliminating the women’s rowing program would only exacerbate the noncompliance UConn already faced in meeting prong one compliance.     

Next, the court determined that the complainants would suffer irreparable harm in the absence of a temporary restraining order because they are all high-level college athletes who vigorously trained throughout their high school years in order to attend a Division 1 program such as UConn, and they only attended UConn for the purpose of joining their rowing team. Eliminating the women’s rowing program would therefore cause them to have to transfer to another Division 1 program, face interruption in their competition, and be forced to reacclimate to a new coaching staff and athletic program. 

The court was also persuaded that a balancing of equities tipped in favor of the complainants, and it was in the public interest to vindicate the complainant’s civil rights guaranteed under Title IX. Subsequently, UConn was ordered to: keep the women’s varsity rowing team, not terminate the employment of the coaching staff, not reduce the financial, material, or other support provided to the women’s rowing program, and to not deny access to facilities, coaching, training, or competitive opportunities to the women’s rowing team.

Key Takeaways:

  • Attempting to eliminate athletic sports for budgetary reasons will be an unlikely basis to persuade courts with respect to maintaining gender equity in athletics.
  • Athletic departments should conduct annual audits on their athletic programs. The courts will rely on this data heavily in determining an institution’s Title IX athletic compliance.
  • Artificially inflating team roster numbers will never end well for an institution. Honesty and transparency are key when striving for compliance data that will hold up to court scrutiny.

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