EMU: Judge Can't Act as Athletic Director on Title IX

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Eastern Michigan University has appealed a federal court decision ordering it to reinstate its softball program, claiming the judge who handled the case doesn't have authority to play "athletic director."

Earlier this month, federal judge George Steeh gave EMU an April 1 deadline to hire a softball coach, with the understanding it would field a team in time for the 2019-20 season. In addition, Steeh ordered that Eastern Michigan give the sport the same budget, including the same amount of available scholarships, as when softball was cut, as well as make any necessary repairs to the softball field, organize competitive tournament and conference schedules, equipment and uniform orders, and hire other necessary staff "to ensure the team has a normal competition season."

That ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed by two student-athletes — a softball player and a tennis player — after the university announced last March that it was dropping four sports — women's softball and tennis, and men's wrestling and swimming and diving — in the interest of cutting $2.4 million from the athletics budget. Steeh initially ruled that because Eastern Michigan's enrollment skews female, the fact that its student-athlete population is predominantly male fell short of Title IX standards.

Attorneys representing EMU in its appeal argue Steeh has misinterpreted Title IX and his role in enforcing it.

"Title IX does not permit federal judges to serve as athletic directors," the lawyers wrote in their 25-page appeal, filed last week in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. "Title IX does not require the maintenance of any particular sports. Its sole concern is with the overall allocation of athletic participation opportunities and resources between genders."

The March elimination of four sports affected more male athletes (58) than female (25), according to the university, with the percentage of female student-athletes increasing from 43 percent to 50 percent. Moreover, Eastern Michigan had previously offered 21 sports, most among Mid-American Conference members, and thus eliminating four programs put the university more in line with its MAC peers.

"We are determined to meet our Title IX obligations completely and in a way that most benefits our student-athletes," EMU said in a statement. "For this reason, the university has asked the Court of Appeals to stay the district court’s preliminary injunction regarding the restoration of specific sports, pending the outcome of our appeal to the Sixth Circuit."

As reported by The Detroit News, Eastern Michigan announced last November that it would reinstate the tennis team, and rehired the team's coach. But instead of reinstating softball, athletic director Scott Wetherbee proposed adding women's lacrosse, arguing it would be more cost-effective while providing athletic opportunities to significantly more female student-athletes. Wetherbee said lacrosse would cost the university about $650,000 a year, compared to about $870,000 for softball.

"If the preliminary injunction stands, EMU will be forced to divert resources from the creation and expansion of other women’s sports programs that it believes offer greater opportunity for female student-athletes in a far more economically sustainable manner," the university's appeal states, as reported by the Detroit Free Press. "These potential harms are even more acute because EMU faces severe budget issues. The injunction also offends the public interest in federalism and comity by substituting a federal judge’s views on how to run a university athletic department for those of the elected and appointed public officials responsible for the academic, financial, and general well-being of EMU."

According to the Free Press, the appeals court has scheduled a mediation conference between the two sides for March 19.

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