In 2007, three female students who played club sports at the University of California at Davis sued the university to challenge the lack of varsity athletic opportunities for women. They argued that Davis failed to satisfy any of the three alternative prongs for measuring compliance in this regard. The university argued that it complied with the proportionality prong, as women made up 56% of the student body, and received 50% of athletic opportunities. This difference of 6 percentage points is close to the +/- 5 percentage point difference that is commonly — though unofficially — recognized as acceptable to constitute substantial proportionality.
This week, the parties have agreed upon a settlement to end the litigation, in which U.C. Davis agrees to close that gap to 1.5 percentage points within 10 years. The New York Times’s coverage of the settlement calls this a “stricter standard” that could influence how compliance is measured across the country. To put this point into context, I want to again point out that courts have accepted that percentage differences up to 5 percentage points qualify as substantial proportionality, this has never has this been adopted as a hard and fast rule applicable to every case.
Moreover, I don’t see U.C. Davis’s agreement to bring its athletic opportunity percentage to within 1.5 points of the percentage of women as acceptance of a “stricter standard” so much as an acceptance of a definition of substantial proportionality that is more appropriate for Davis — and, frankly, which might not be appropriate at other schools. The judge in the U.C. Davis case recognized when he denied the university’s motion for summary judgment that a six percentage point difference such as Davis’s can represent a disparity of many opportunities or few, depending on the size of the university’s enrollment and the athletic department. At Davis, the disparity represented over one hundred opportunities that would have to be added to bring the percentage of athletic opportunities in line with the percentage of women on campus and give women the same access to sports as men. At smaller schools, that same percentage point difference might only represent dozens of opportunities, rather than hundreds. It makes sense that a percentage point differential that might be acceptable in one case might not be appropriate in another, and that Davis should be striving for a difference lower, rather than just over, a 5 percentage point difference. The university should be commended for agreeing to those terms, and for its other promise to contribute $110,000 to support the development of women’s athletics through club sports.