COVID and the cuts

 There have been a lot of cuts to intercollegiate teams in the past 8+ months. Most school administrators have cited budget issues related to the pandemic as the primary reason. I don’t doubt the veracity of these claims, but it might also be valuable to look at what kinds of decisions and practices athletics admins have been engaged in in the past decade plus (since the last recession) that might have exacerbated the current economic struggles. I will not be doing that work here (that’s a long-term project for those with more economic expertise than me). 

This post is a roundup of some of the cuts and the Title IX implications.

Brown University

Brown’s cuts, announced in June, are not–administrators say–related to COVID. They did come, however, in the midst of the pandemic. 

Initially the university announced the elimination of 11 varsity teams and the elevation of 2 club sports to varsity status. Brown carried a large number of intercollegiate teams (38, third in the US), but did not have a lot of titles among those teams. The cuts were made, athletics administrators say, to increase the competitiveness of Brown athletics. The cuts allow more money to be put into making teams more competitive, especially in the Ivy league. Thus not a budget reduction, but budget reallocation. (Again, Brown has not provided their athletics budget so no one knows if this is true or, and here is where Title IX comes into play, how the monies are being reallocated.) 

Cut: fencing (MW), golf (MW), squash (MW), women’s skiing, women’s equestrian, and men’s indoor track and field, outdoor T&F, and cross-country

Added: women’s sailing, co-ed sailing

Athletes mobilized quickly and worked with the ACLU of Rhode Island and not-for-profit Public Justice to challenge the elimination of the 5 women’s teams as a violation of the university’s 1998 agreement in Cohen v. Brown , which required to university to offer opportunities to women that are proportional to their undergraduate enrollment. Brown said the elevation of women’s and co-ed sailing would meet the proportionality requirement; lawyers for the athletes said that the university cannot count teams that do not exist yet. Not having the background to assess that argument, I will skip ahead to the settlement:

In December, Brown agreed to reinstate women’s equestrian and women’s fencing. The agreement also sets an expiration date, August 2024, to the Cohen agreement, which the university has said has impeded the desired competitiveness. 

A few things about this case:

  • the argument that having to maintain proportionality impeded the competitive strength of the university’s athletics programs is weak. The university can cut women’s programs, it just also has to cut men’s programs. Proportionality is actually the only prong that allows cuts to women’s programs. This is a (mis)management issue on Brown’s part. It contributes to the negative “Title IX made us do it” discourse. Brown is saying “we couldn’t be competitive because of Title IX.” That is not true.
  • This settlement is an important reminder of the power and legacy of legal action. The athletes who argued that Brown was in contempt of the Cohen agreement were not even born when that agreement was made. I hope some history was learned here.
  • The men’s track programs were also reinstated, but not as part of the settlement. The university reconsidered its decision after criticism over its commitment to racial diversity. I know this is not a Title IX issue, but it is an opportunity to encourage the historically marginalized to support one another. The cuts that are happening are not just about the single issue of gender. We see this also in the story of Brown student athlete Lauren Reischer, who is on the equestrian team. She also has cerebral palsy and never thought she would have the opportunity to compete in intercollegiate sports. Are the cut makers truly investigating whose opportunities are being taken away?

Dartmouth University

 Elsewhere in the Ivy League, Dartmouth announced, in July, it was cutting 5 sports: men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s golf, and men’s lightweight rowing. The cuts are to address, according to administration, the costs of recruitment. Included in the announcement was mention that, even with the cuts, the university will remain in compliance with prong 1 of Title IX. Members of the women’s golf and swimming teams have retained counsel, however, and their lawyer sent a letter to the school last month asking the teams to be reinstated because the university is NOT in compliance with prong 1 and that it would need to add 47 more opportunities for women in order to be so. (I have not looked at any numbers–which would be a year old anyway–to check the validity of the the conflicting statements about compliance.) The university’s response–if they have made one–has not been announced yet.

University of Iowa

The University of Iowa, no stranger to Title IX problems and various athletics-related scandals, announced in August that it was cutting men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s gymnastics, and men’s tennis.

The university was critiqued for the way it made the announcement. The athletes were brought into the arena (safely distanced) where athletics director Gary Barta told them the bad news and then left the arena to get on with the business of being an athletic director at a Big 10 school whose football season had just been cancelled. He left his staff to address questions and comfort the athletes. Football was the reason, according to Barta, for the elimination of the four programs; the budget shortfalls that would result from a cancelled football season. But when the Big 10 season was reinstated after protestation from parents and player lawsuits, Barta/the university did not reverse their decision. There would be increased costs to COVID testing and precautions that had to be met to run a football season. Also, there were those raises (totaling over half a million dollars) were given to members of the football coaching staff. 

[There is definitely a Title IX issue with football, at many schools, being the only sport that was allowed to happen this past fall. This is an issue for another post.]

The reaffirmation of the cuts resulted in the women’s swim team filing a Title IX lawsuit against the university. Iowa claims prong 1 compliance but a 2016 OCR investigation could not confirm that it met proportionality requirements and the current lawsuit states that the university has padded its rosters (for example fielding a women’s rowing team whose total roster is more than 40% higher than the average DI team) rather than providing real opportunities for women athletes. The lawsuit also states that the proportionality gap is equal to around 50 opportunities. That is more than enough to field a women’s team (or 2…). 

The swimmers won an injunction at the end of December that prevents the university from cutting the team until the lawsuit goes to court.

Eastern Carolina University

In May ECU cut four sports: women’s and men’s swimming and diving, and men’s and women’s tennis. Under threat of a lawsuit from the cut women’s teams, the university reversed its decision last week. In the announcement, the athletics director said they hired a Title IX consultant after receiving notice that the women were planning a lawsuit. One issue was that 60% of scholarships dollars go to male athletes but the school has a near 50-50 split of men and women athletes. ECU now has to work on hiring back or hiring new coaches for the teams. 

William and Mary

The Virginia college cut 7 sports in September but facing a lawsuit from the eliminated women’s teams (swimming and diving, volleyball, gymnastics), all three were reinstated a month later. A spokesperson for the college said it was to avoid costly litigation. It was also announced that the school would do a compliance review and come up with a plan to achieve equity in athletics opportunities. The quick turnabout seemed to be due in part to the initial announcement letter; it was plagiarized from the letter Stanford University used to announce its own cuts. Facing a vote of no confidence, the athletics director (who issued the letter) resigned. 

The college also chose to reinstate the cut men’s teams. They will conduct a Title IX review to be completed by the end of the summer.

While I am glad that ECU and William and Mary quickly changed courses, it’s curious and worrisome that they made the cuts so cavalierly in the first place, i.e., without any regard to gender equity. In  November, I was on a panel about COVID and Title IX as part of the annual North American Society for the Sociology of Sport meeting. We discussed how the pandemic will (or already has) impact(ed) equality in athletics; how are the decisions made; how are they being framed; what are the more subtle effects that might not be visible to those outside of athletics; how are women coaches being affected in the short and long term. 

There are so many questions currently and coming. Cuts are an immediate effect of pandemic-induced budget shortfalls, and thus they are the easiest (relatively speaking) to discuss at this moment. But I hope to be able to delve into some of the longer-lasting and less obvious effects of the pandemic on equity in sports in the coming months.