Thursday, April 26, 2007

ANews Covers EIA Members at OU

OU student-athletes join group's effort to force Title IX changes

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

With the addition of 20 Ohio University students, the Great Lakes Chapter of Equity in Athletics Inc. is growing by the day as new people join to save the recently cut varsity-sport teams at Ohio University and to restore what they feel is federal Title IX's original intent of eliminating discrimination in athletics.

"So far our voices and suggestions have been tossed aside. However, we have not yet begun to fight," vowed OU freshman swimmer Branden Burns.

According to its Web site, EIA is a coalition of students, alumni, parents and coaches who want to preserve broad-based, equitable sports programs. EIA is a national group, containing Virginia, Pennsylvania and Great Lakes chapters. The Great Lakes Chapter is made up of members from Ohio and Michigan.

Burns said that he and other OU students became involved with EIA after Burns consulted Title IX experts within the academic community, the U.S. Department of Education, and NCAA officials on the status of OU's Title IX compliance.

"All agreed that these cuts were not necessary to comply with Title IX and that the university used Title IX as a scapegoat," said Burns.

After conversations with local experts, Burns said he contacted EIA to explain OU's situation, and soon joined the organization and began discussing ways to save the athletic programs with EIA attorney Larry Joseph.

"As a member of EIA, I work with other EIA members to strategize and organize ways in which we can save our teams," said Burns. "I joined EIA because they had already started in the battle to save programs at JMU (John Marshall University in Virginia), and they have the experience and know-how when dealing with Title IX situations like the one we have here at OU."

Burns, a swimmer for the recently cut men's swimming and diving team at OU, acknowledged that the university's recent decision was disappointing. "I realize that this has been a tough situation for all parties involved," said Burns. "However, the decision to cut four sports was a terrible decision." (The three other cut sports include women's lacrosse and men's indoor and outdoor track and field.)

The athletes affected by these cuts, Burns added, represent the best and the brightest students this institution has to offer. "These cuts, if they stand, will have a far more negative affect on this institution than I think the administration realizes," said Burns. "This has caused student moral to go down, and this then affects student retention and new student recruitment."

Emily Wylam, swimmer for the OU women's swim team, which survived the cuts, said the decision was devastating to everyone who was involved. "I don't think that it was correctly gone about by the administration," said Wylam. "I think it was very hidden in their agenda, and they didn't truly consider the feelings of the athletes they'd be affecting."

In hopes for a compromise, Burns and other EIA members have suggested many solutions to the OU administration, including a "Phase Out" plan, as an alternative to abruptly dropping the sports after the current seasons.

"We have given many suggestions on how OU can do this with a positive outcome for both the university and the students affected," said Burns.

Burns said the Phase Out plan would allow the freshman class to finish out their eligibility on the team, and proposes funding for the teams for the next several years through alumni and local fundraisers and donations. This proposal would buy the teams extra time while EIA's case proceeds through litigation. The organization is hoping that its lawsuit against the federal Department of Education will result in such eliminations of sports teams that occurred at OU being ruled unconstitutional.

"We love OU, and we don't want OU to get trashed all over his. However we are fighting because we want to stay here," said Burns. "We want to go about this as professionally and politely as possible, but if it cannot be done that way, then unfortunately it will most likely have to go to litigation.

In the April 17 letter to John Burns, OU's director of legal affairs (no relation to Branden Burns), EIA attorney Joseph said students were not the only local party to question the sports cuts. "Even members of OU's Board of Trustees privately have expressed the concern that OU did not handle these cuts well procedurally, and now EIA-GL has raised significant substantive questions as well," wrote Joseph.

In the letter, EIA refers to its lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education in the U.S. District Court for Western Virginia "and its Great Lakes Chapter's intent to file a similar lawsuit over the OU cuts." The Great Lakes Chapter asked OU to postpone its plans to cut the athletic programs, and threatened to file a lawsuit against OU if the university doesn't comply with the group's demand.

The letter maintains that if OU maintains its sports cuts, the university is violating both the U.S. Constitution and Title 1X, which according to the press release, creates an equal athletic opportunity, based on the assessed relative interests of both genders.

Branden Burns said that EIA is also out to invalidate the 1996 "three-part test." This calls for "equal athletic participation, based on enrollment, with no need to assess either gender's interest." Joseph said in his letter that like many universities, OU now relies on the three-part test. This, however, does not constitute a valid or current interpretation of Title IX, he argued.

"For a school ostensibly acting in part to save money and in part to comply with Title IX, going through with the planned cuts will not achieve either goal," stated attorney Joseph in his letter to OU legal director Burns.

Currently, Branden Burns and other EIA members are working to save the sports teams by contacting alumni for support and meeting with the Board of Trustees and President McDavis, along with creating and proposing plans to save the cut sports teams. Burns stressed that EIA and its members are not out to get OU. "EIA's fight is with the Department of Education and not with OU," he said. "We do have a problem with their cuts; however, we see the predicament that they are finding themselves in."

Branden Burns encourages all OU students to join EIA and support the cause.

OU has limited its response to EIA's letter and threat of a lawsuit with a short statement from its Board of Trustees chair. In the statement, issued last Friday, Trustees Chair R. Gregory Browning said, "We will not reverse the decision. It is consistent with the law and good public policy."

In general, the university has justified the cuts both on the basis of gender equity and budgetary limitations.

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