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Students File Title IX Lawsuit Against U. of Kentucky

Paul Steinbach

Two students are suing the University of Kentucky, claiming the school is violating federal law by failing to offer women enough opportunities in varsity athletics.

As reported by the Louisville Courier Journal, the lawsuit says UK has to add about 183 women to its athletics programs to comply with Title IX, the civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs.

The suit was filed in federal court Wednesday against UK, its board of trustees, athletic director Mitch Barnhart and university president Eli Capilouto. 

The plaintiffs — senior Elizabeth Niblock and junior Meredith Newman — are represented by Des Moines-based lawyer Jill Zwagerman, who pointed out that Title IX was passed in 1972.

"The fact that it's the 21st century and there's still an issue towards having gender equality among sports baffles me," Niblock said. "They have had since 1972 to do better than 183 women out of compliance. The University of Kentucky can do better. The University of Kentucky must do better.

Niblock and Newman's lawsuit alleges UK and certain school officials have:

  • Employed "a discriminatory process for establishing and maintaining varsity teams for men and women," which has deprived women of an equitable opportunity to participate at that level.
  • Denied applications from sports club teams for field hockey, lacrosse and triathlon that sought to move up to varsity.
  • Never met its obligations for Title IX compliance and hasn't added a new varsity sport for women in more than a decade.
  • Failed to provide women athletes with an "equal allocation of athletic financial assistance."
  • Afforded women's sports unequal access to facilities and money.
  • Made decisions in its athletics program based on athletes' sex, resulting in the disparate treatment of women.

UK responded Wednesday with a statement defending its athletic programs.

"The University of Kentucky fully complies with Title IX and its regulations concerning participation in intercollegiate athletics. As a campus community, we care deeply about these issues," spokesman Jay Blanton said. 

"With 22 sports, UK has the broadest based athletics program in the Southeastern Conference. Based on our surveys of our students, the current sports offerings fully accommodate the interests and abilities of our undergraduate students."

According to U.S. Department of Education data cited by the Courier Journal, UK reported it had 226 participants on its women's teams (including six on its co-ed rifle team) compared with 331 participants on its men's teams (including five on the rifle team). That means women made up about 41 percent of participants in varsity sports at UK, even though women comprised about 55 percent of UK's full-time undergraduates.

According to the NCAA, an institution has to meet one of these three tests as part of the requirements for complying with Title IX: 

  • Provide opportunities for women and men to participate that are "substantially proportionate" to their respective enrollment rates. 
  • Show a history and ongoing practice of expanding programs for the members of the sex that's underrepresented.
  • Effectively and fully accommodate the abilities and interests of the group that's underrepresented.

The lawsuit even says UK has refused to add a triathlon team despite being offered a $150,000 grant to help launch one. Adding a varsity-level triathlon team would create as many as 13 new opportunities for women athletes, according to estimates laid out in the lawsuit.

Forming a lacrosse team would establish around 30 opportunities for women, while making field hockey a varsity sport would add about 23 opportunities, according to the lawsuit, which also points to rowing (47 opportunities) and fencing (16).

Niblock and Newman are asking the court to require UK to add more varsity-level opportunities for women and to increase the financial assistance it affords women athletes. It also seeks unspecified monetary damages.

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