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Brown University has negotiated a new settlement with its female athletes, which offers an end to a two-decade-old consent agreement requiring the university to maintain specific gender equity standards in its sports programs. The new settlement would also reinstate two recently eliminated women’s varsity teams.
After months of public accusations and competing court filings between representatives of campus athletes and Brown administrators about the university's commitment to women athletes, the two sides reached a settlement. The institution's president and attorneys who represent the athletes announced Thursday that they agreed to end the terms of the original 1998 settlement on Aug. 31, 2024. That agreement currently has no end date and requires Brown to maintain a strict and specific proportion of athletic opportunities for women that is close to the proportion of women in its undergraduate population.
In exchange for ending the 1998 agreement, two women’s teams that were cut in late May, equestrian and fencing, will be reinstated at varsity status as soon as the new settlement terms are approved by the United State District Court for the District of Rhode Island, according to the settlement document with the terms provided by Public Justice, a legal advocacy group that is representing the female athletes.
Brian Clark, Brown’s assistant vice president for news and editorial development, said in an email that a preliminary approval could happen within the next week and that there will also be a hearing for the court to evaluate the new settlement. There are no firm dates for when the new settlement will be completed, but the university expects the initial approval of the agreement, notification of female athletes and a hearing to extend into next month, Clark wrote.
The 1998 agreement was known as the Cohen agreement, named for Amy Cohen, a female athlete who sued Brown after cuts to two women’s and two men’s teams. She claimed the cuts violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the law prohibiting sex discrimination, including in college sports programs, at federally funded institutions.
“The Cohen agreement served an important purpose when it was signed 22 years ago, but Brown’s commitment to women athletes transcends the agreement,” President Christina Paxson said in a press release. “We can provide excellent athletics opportunities for women and men, be a leader in upholding Title IX and have a competitive varsity program. And we will.”
Lauren Reischer, a senior and co-captain for the equestrian team, said she is “overwhelmingly happy” that the program will be restored. Reischer has cerebral palsy and advocates for people with disabilities to pursue collegiate equestrian, which is more accessible than traditional sports. Now that the team has been reinstated, she can continue to set an example and work with Brown to recruit athletes with disabilities, she said.
“It’s hard to be anything other than grateful, relieved and extremely motivated for the next season to come,” Reischer said.
But Reischer said her feelings are complicated by the fact that women’s golf, squash and skiing will not be restored. They were also cut by Brown in May as part of an initiative to improve the university’s competitiveness in the Ivy League, the collegiate athletic conference in which Brown competes against institutions such as Princeton University, Harvard University and Yale University.
Clark said in the email that women's equestrian and fencing are being restored because equestrian does not have a parallel men’s team and fencing met certain measurements and important goals of the university, such as "existing strengths, diversity, squad size, quality of facilities, and capacity for community engagement."
Lynette Labinger, cooperating counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and lead attorney in the original class action lawsuit brought against Brown on behalf of female athletes in 1992, said the goal of the June legal challenge to Brown’s athletic initiative was to get all of the women’s teams reinstated. The athletes argued that Brown's reinstatement of men’s track, field and cross country, but not women’s teams, after backlash to the cuts, did not comply with the 1998 agreement. Brown argued that its addition of two new varsity teams, women’s sailing and coed sailing, would have complied with the agreement.
But reinstating all five women’s teams would have gone beyond the requirements of the 1998 agreement and Title IX because the university also cut three other men’s teams in the initiative, Labinger said.
“We believe this is a substantial improvement from Brown’s position, which is that it didn’t have to bring any teams back, that it was going to be in fine shape with the new structure,” Labinger said. “We were disappointed that we couldn’t get the opportunities back for all of our class members. There are folks that are devastated, and I share that concern. I wish we could have.”
Maddie McCarthy, a sophomore and former skier for Brown, said the cut to women’s skiing was a “huge loss” from her life, not just her college career. McCarthy began skiing when she was 2 and a half years old, and she later attended a boarding school in New York designed for high-level winter sports athletes. She said she made a lot of sacrifices to attend Brown, including taking a gap year after high school to rehabilitate a broken leg and to get her SAT scores up in order to be admitted to Brown to compete on its skiing team.
McCarthy and other female athletes advocated for the teams to be reinstated and worked with the attorneys on the case. She sees the new agreement with Brown as a win for all female athletes at the university.
“Over all it’s a reflection of our efforts over the last few months,” McCarthy said. “I’m just super happy for them.”
The terms of the settlement also require Brown to restore more women’s teams if it decides to restore any more men’s teams. It also prevents the university from adding new men’s teams before 2024. The restored women’s teams must receive the same resources as they did before, but they may be “reduced commensurate with reductions in overall level of funding” for Brown Athletics, according to the terms of the agreement.
McCarthy said the university’s decision making over the last three months and its lack of communication with athletes when the teams were cut has tainted her image of the Brown administration. She said the cuts were “ruthless” for being overly focused on winning games and being made during the coronavirus pandemic, “at this time of distress and uncertainty.” She said several coaches lost their jobs as a result of the cuts.
McCarthy also noted that internal emails between Paxson and other university officials, which were made public last month, damaged the administration's credibility with students. In the email exchanges, Paxson and Chancellor Samuel Mencoff discussed ways to get out of the 1998 agreement and turn public opinion against the gender equity standards it required Brown to meet in order to "kill this pestilential thing."
“The fact that … these decision makers are still here is the biggest threat and why I don’t think we’re going to get any good recruits soon. People are turned off from coming here,” McCarthy said. “Not only did they lose through the legal system, they’ve lost in their image and the way that they’ve conducted themselves.”
Clark said in the email that the university understood the initial downgrade of some teams from varsity status would be “difficult for some of our student-athletes, and particularly for those on the affected teams.” But in the end, the initiative will benefit Brown Athletics over all, he wrote.
“We have supported those students in considering their options, while continuing to move forward with an initiative that will ensure a vastly improved athletics program that will benefit current and future generations of student-athletes and members of the Brown community who support our athletes and teams,” Clark wrote. “Despite the public narrative shared at points since our May announcement, Brown has never wavered in its commitment to gender equality and complying with Title IX.”