Over two years ago, a federal district court in Connecticut concluded that Quinnipiac University’s decision to cut its women’s volleyball team violated Title IX by leaving too few opportunities for women in its student body. As a remedy, the court issued an injunction requiring Quinnipiac to retain the team until it could show that it could cut the team in a manner that complied with Title IX. Yesterday, that same court ruled that Quinnipiac had not yet demonstrated such compliance, and denied the university’s motion to lift the injunction.
Quinnipiac had asked the court to evaluate its compliance in light of several changes to its athletics program since the 2010 case. The university added a women’s golf team and a women’s rugby team. It also continued to support its fledgling acrobatics and tumbling (“acro”) team, which the court had earlier determined should not be counted, since the sport was too new to provide athletic opportunities comparable to those afforded by other varsity sports. Finally, Quinnipiac instituted a policy prohibiting coaches from requiring student athletes to join additional teams. This change addressed the court’s finding that indoor and outdoor track opportunities should not count separately for certain cross-country athletes who were forced to practice with those teams as “simply an alternative form of off season training” but who did not compete with those teams due to injury or red-shirt status.
The court easily concluded that the opportunities Quinnipiac added in women’s golf, an NCAA recognized sport, should court towards its proportionality qualification. However, it determined that acro and rugby, which both lack NCAA recognition at this point, should not count:
True, recognition by the NCAA is not, in itself, a requirement of Title IX. But where, as here, a school chooses to sponsor an athletics program at the highest level of competition (NCAA Division I), and offers all of its male athletes the opportunity to participate in NCAA-championship sports, the lack of NCAA recognition for a single women’s sport within that program raises a significant gender equity issue if the school hopes to count that unrecognized sport toward compliance with Title IX. So long as Quinnipiac chooses to hold itself out as a Division I institution, providing a full slate of NCAA-recognized sports for men, equity demands that it do the same for women.
Acro, the court pointed out, hasn’t even made it onto the NCAA’s list of emerging sports for women, the usual pathway toward becoming a championship sport. And the court seemed skeptical of this recognition occurring in the near future, in light of the competing proposal from USA Cheer for a different version of competitive cheer called STUNT. Only a handful of universities sponsor acro teams, which limits the opportunities for competition and denies participants the opportunity for a progressive play-off, which is a hallmark characteristic of varsity programs.
Rugby, on the other hand, is recognized as an emerging sport for women by the NCAA. That status usually means that the sport will have an NCAA championship if a sufficient number of schools add teams within a ten year period. Rugby became an emerging sport in 2002, and has been added by only five universities (including Quinnipiac) within that time. The court’s concern, therefore, is that rugby’s status on the emerging sports list is on borrowed time. Quinnipiac’s rugby team has limited opportunities for varsity-level competition, and as a result played most of its competitive schedule against other club-level teams. It also had no opportunity for post-season competition.
Based on the court’s decision not to count acro and rugby (as well as its decision not to count three injured cross-country runners who quit the indoor track team part-way through the season, but prior to any competition), the court removed 67 athletic opportunities from Quinnipiac’s proffered tally, bringing the total number of athletic opportunities for women down to 254. There are 168 athletic opportunities for men, so the opportunities for women amount to 60.2%. By comparison, Quinnipiac’s student body is 62.4% female, so Quinnipiac’s disparity is 2.2%. As tiny as this is expressed as a percent, 2.2 percent corresponds to an additional 25 athletic opportunities that would have to be added in order to hit 62.4. Since that is more than enough to sustain a new varsity team, Quinnipiac’s proportionality is not just not close enough — and would be even farther off if, without the injunction, Quinnipiac went ahead with plans to reduce women’s opportunities by an additional 14 — the number of participants in women’s volleyball.
For these reasons, the court denied Quinnipiac’s motion to lift the injunction. Acknowledging the university’s progress, the court nevertheless expressed some skepticism of the university’s choices: “Rather than simply recommit to women’s volleyball or bring other NCAA-championship sports to campus, the University doubled down on its plan to eliminate volleyball, and staked its compliance with Title IX on an as-yet unrecognized sport as well as an emerging sport in imminent danger of losing that recognition.” In sum, “by relying today on sports that do not yet provide genuine varsity participation opportunities, Quinnipiac has taken a prong-two approach to solving a prong-one problem.”