Sunday, April 29, 2007

Columbus Dispatch Covers EIA Suit Against OU, DoE

Group threatens to sue OU over cutbacks: Varied interpretations of Title IX's real purpose create compliance flap

ATHENS, Ohio -- Ohio University says it won't reverse its decision to eliminate four varsity athletics programs despite a warning from a group in Virginia that it might sue if the cuts aren't postponed.

The university announced in January that it planned to drop men's indoor and outdoor track, men's swimming and diving, and women's lacrosse to trim nearly $700,000 from the athletics budget and bring the school into compliance with Title IX, federal legislation that guarantees students equal opportunities regardless of gender.

But the recently formed Equity in Athletics argues that the cuts violate the spirit of the federal law.

In March, the group filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education based on the elimination of 10 sports programs at James Madison University in Virginia. The Education Department enforces the gender-equity rules at all universities that receive federal money.

Equity in Athletics describes itself as a nonprofit coalition of athletes, coaches, parents, alumni and fans. In a letter to OU officials this month, the group maintained that Title IX never was intended to be based solely on headcounts.

The group's argument is that Title IX was designed to make sure men and women got equal opportunities to compete in college athletics based on their relative levels of interest. However, its officials said, later policy readings have replaced that standard with a benchmark of participation reflecting enrollment levels for each sex.

Such "balancing" is unconstitutional, the group contends, and can sometimes lead schools to cut smaller programs, both men's and women's, in an attempt to reach overall gender balance based on enrollment ratios.

"We would argue these are quotas," said Larry Joseph, an attorney for the group. "(Title IX) is an equal opportunity statute, not an equal result statute."

"I feel very confident that we have not violated any federal law," countered OU athletic director Kirby Hocutt.

Based on OU's understanding of the law, the university was out of compliance with Title IX before making the athletics cuts.

The cuts also were needed for budgetary reasons, and to allow OU to maintain quality in its remaining sports programs, Hocutt said.

"Our decision remains final, and it was obviously a very difficult decision to have to recommend and make," he said.

Branden Burns, an 18-year-old freshman swimmer from Kent, Ohio, is spearheading the campaign at OU to save the threatened programs.

Burns said he met this month with OU President Roderick McDavis and proposed a plan whereby the programs would raise money to support themselves and be gradually phased out of varsity status over three years rather than shut down at the end of this academic quarter.

In the meantime, he said, he and other student athletes hope the coalition wins its federal court case.

"If EIA wins its suit, then the cuts here at OU would be illegal," he said. "So (our plan) could save the university some headaches down the road."

Joseph said his group would like to work out an arrangement with OU under which the university would postpone the cuts long enough for a federal court to rule on the group's legal challenge.

In exchange, he said, his coalition would leave OU out of any federal litigation as a defendant.

"We're giving the schools a choice," he said. "Sit on the sidelines and defer the cuts, or be a defendant."

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