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Female Athletes Sue SDSU Alleging Inequitable Financial Aid

Paul Steinbach
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A group of current and former female athletes at San Diego State University filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging the university violated Title IX gender equity requirements by not providing women’s sports with sufficient scholarship money.

As reported by The San Diego Union Tribune, 11 of the 17 athletes involved in the class action were on the women's rowing team that SDSU eliminated last spring for different Title IX reasons. The athletic department claimed it had too many female athletes and needed to make cuts to comply with the landmark 1972 legislation that prohibits gender discrimination at educational institutions receiving federal funding.

Fourteen of the 17 athletes are current SDSU students, with six belonging to the track and field team.

The 29-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court says SDSU has failed to equitably fund athletic scholarships for women “for more than a decade” and cites a $1.2 million shortfall over the previous two academic years. The lawsuit asks for unspecified “compensatory damages and other monetary relief” plus attorney’s fees in addition to SDSU increasing women’s scholarship levels to meet Title IX compliance, the Union Tribune reported.

The university released a statement noting its women’s scholarship totals annually rank second in the Mountain West conference and among the highest in California.

“The truth is that SDSU awards approximately 95 percent of all possible scholarships permitted under NCAA rules for both its men’s and women’s teams, with the remaining fraction explained by legitimate reasons within SDSU coaches’ discretion," the statement said, as reported by the Union Tribune. "NCAA rules prohibit all schools, including SDSU, from giving unlimited athletic scholarships. To exceed these limits would make student-athletes ineligible to compete.

“We are disappointed with the incomplete picture presented by the plaintiffs’ lawyers about the support for and successes of SDSU’s female student-athletes.”

SDSU has been challenged by one particular prong of Title IX's three-prong compliance test — proportionality. The school's overall male enrollment has increased from 41.3 percent in 2005 to 44 percent, but only 37 percent of SDSU's student-athlete population in 2019-20 was male.

Instead of adding a men's sport, SDSU opted to cut rowing and its roughly 65 participants amid the budgetary strain brought on by the pandemic. The rowing team was allowed to compete through the 2020-21 season, and all scholarships were honored through the duration of the rowers' undergraduate eligibility, although some athletes left to attend other schools. It was the first sport cut by SDSU since the 2001 removal of men’s volleyball, which won the school’s only Division I national championship in 1973.

Monday’s lawsuit does not argue SDSU improperly eliminated rowing or demand it be reinstated. Instead, according to the Times Union. It questions Title IX compliance regarding scholarship dollars for all female athletes.

Between 2010 and 2020, according to federal records, SDSU provided women with about $2 million more in athletic scholarships than men. But because it consistently has had a higher number of female athletes, the overall proportion of women’s scholarships has been less per athlete than for their male counterparts.

In 2019-20, the suit says, 315 or 58.1 percent of athletes were female but they received 50.6 percent of the $9.2 million scholarship pool, a deficit of nearly $700,000.

The law carries a two-year statute of limitations, over which the SDSU female athletes claim they were shorted $1.2 million.

While the U.S. Department of Education website notes that “disparities in awarding financial assistance may be justified by legitimate, nondiscriminatory (sex-neutral) factors,” Monday’s lawsuit alleges SDSU has “not asserted or attempted to demonstrate any justification for SDSU’s failure to provide female student-athletes with equal financial aid that does not reflect underlying discrimination.”

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