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Nation & World

Schools That Cut Women's Sports Teams During The Pandemic Face Lawsuits Over Equality

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It seems the work of Title IX is never done. As some universities try to save money through cuts to their athletics departments, they have to be careful when it comes to Title IX. That is the law that says schools that receive federal money cannot discriminate based on sex. Stacey Vanek Smith and Emma Peaslee with The Indicator podcast and Planet Money have more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STACEY 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: It meant the world to me to even be recruited and, like, respected as a lacrosse player to play Division 1.

EMMA PEASLEE: And after playing three years of college lacrosse, 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.

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, 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.

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.

PEASLEE: This is Megan and Abbigayle's lawyer, Arthur Bryant.

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

PEASLEE: 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 opportunity should be.

VANEK SMITH: Right. But athletics directors are not just thinking about enrollment rates.

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: 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." Stacey Vanek Smith.

PEASLEE: Emma Peaslee, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.