The women’s equestrian team at Delaware State University cleared a major hurdle (so to speak) Monday, when a federal judge approved a settlement in the gender equity lawsuit the team brought against the university, which sought to eliminate the existing team to make way for a competitive cheerleading squad.
Under the terms of the settlement, Delaware State, a historically black institution, must keep the equestrian team as a varsity sport with full funding until the university complies with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by providing women’s athletic opportunities that are equal to the proportion of full-time female undergraduate students. If it meets this participation requirement, without counting equestrian team members in calculating compliance, by June 30, 2013, the university will be free to eliminate the squad if it wishes.
According to the latest federal reports, 61 percent of Delaware State’s undergraduates are female, compared to 43 percent of its varsity athletes.
The Delaware State case bears a resemblance to a recently decided case involving Quinnipiac University, which eliminated its women’s volleyball team and added a competitive cheerleading squad. In that case, the judge ruled in favor of the volleyball team, saying that the university had violated Title IX in cutting volleyball because competitive cheerleading could not yet be counted as a varsity sport for gender equity purposes, since it lacked, among other attributes, common rules and scoring at the intercollegiate level.
Still, lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Delaware State case say their case had little to do with cheerleading.
“We thought we had a strong case from the beginning, regardless of how the Quinnipiac decision went,” said Abbe Fletman, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. “Even if cheer had been counted as a sport, [Delaware State] still wasn’t close to complying with Title IX participation requirements.”
Given that the university had cut an existing sport, the poor proportionality figures at Delaware State were too grim to ignore, say some gender equity experts.
“They violated Title IX 101,” said Erin Buzuvis, associate professor at Western New England College School of Law and co-founder of The Title IX Blog. “When you don’t have proportionality, you can’t remove opportunity from an underrepresented sex.”
Delaware State officials did not return requests for comment. Derek Carter, the university’s athletic director, on Monday told Wilmington’s News Journal that the institution is looking at adding other women’s sports to improve its Title IX proportionality. He also noted that the institution is abandoning its plan to elevate competitive cheerleading to varsity status.
Attempts to reach some of the equestrian team member plaintiffs were also unsuccessful.
Fletman, however, expressed her pleasure and that of the plaintiffs with the settlement, noting that it might “make some other schools think twice about how they work to comply with Title IX.”
The Quinnipiac decision and the Delaware State settlement are the latest in a string of legal cases in the past year to favor women’s sports advocates, involving Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, San Diego Mesa College, Lincoln Land Community College and Diablo Valley College, to name a few. Despite these successes, Title IX supporters aren't necessarily ready to declare victory.
“It’s good that enforcement of Title IX is on the rise through both judicial and agency enforcement,” Buzuvis said. “Still, it’s sad that nearly 40 years since Title IX was passed … schools are still screwing it up. It makes me wonder how many other violations are going on undetected.”
Buzuvis added that she did not think this settlement would negatively influence the movement already under way to legitimize competitive cheerleading in the eyes of the federal government. She expects cheerleading advocates to follow the suggestions put forth in the Quinnipiac ruling with the same "enthusiasm" they have had since that decision earlier this year.
Not everyone monitoring the Delaware State settlement is pleased by the outcome.
“Unfortunately, Title IX didn't provide protection for Delaware State's wrestling team like it did for the equestrian team,” wrote Eric Pearson, chairman of the College Sports Council, a group that advocates for Title IX reform, in an e-mail. “The simple fact is that because of the way that Title IX is currently regulated, it means that boys do not receive equal protection under the law. Because most historically black colleges and universities have many more female students than male students, they will continue to face problems complying with Title IX's inflexible gender quota." (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)
Delaware State, however, cannot remove any more men's teams to comply with Title IX because it would fall below the NCAA minimum of six.