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Female Athletes, Brown Reach Equity Agreement

Andy Berg

A federal judge on Tuesday approved calls for the reinstatement of two women’s sports at Brown University, while releasing the school from a landmark gender-equity ruling from 1998. 

The decision brings to a close a decades-long gender discrimination lawsuit that was brought by two female athletes.

Terms of the deal that were agreed to by both sides set August 2024 as the end date to a 1998 agreement that was reached in the landmark Cohen V. Brown class action lawsuit, which was credited with helping to even the playing field nationwide for men’s and women’s sports. That agreement required that the share of varsity sports opportunities for women at Brown must be within a fixed percentage of the share of women in the undergraduate student body.

Led by Amy Cohen, the lawsuit required Brown to promote equity in “participation opportunities” for women and men student-athletes.

According to The Providence Journal, when Brown announced the sports cuts this spring, Public Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island asked the court to enforce the Cohen agreement, reinstate the women’s teams and find Brown in contempt.

As part of the most recent ruling, Brown will reinstate fencing and equestrian teams — two of the five teams Brown recently cut — but the school will also be released from the 1998 agreement, which the university said has become “a significant obstacle” in its ability to offer women’s and men’s teams the competitive experience they deserve.

“In my opinion, having reviewed the entire record and the settlement … I feel compelled to say that Brown President Chris Paxson got an undeserved bum rap in the public,” said U.S. District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell Jr, who is also a Brown alum. 

The records referenced included emails where Paxson revealed she wanted the 1998 agreement killed. However, McConnell said Brown had been in compliance by a significant margin throughout Paxson’s tenure.

The lead lawyer on the case representing the women, Lynette Labinger, said that she was willing to relieve Brown from the 1998 agreement, because federal Title IX and gender-quity laws have developed “robust” protections for female athletes in recent years.

“While we wish we could have convinced Brown to restore all five teams, we were able to hammer out an agreement that has restored at least two and will hold the line against any more cuts for the next four years, after which Brown will continue to be obliged to comply in full with Title IX’s requirements. These are valuable benefits for our women athletes in the face of a growing national trend to shrink college sports programs across the country," Labinger said in a statement released by the ACLU. 

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