A numbers game

Brown athletics violate Title IX

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

In 1991, Brown University was seen as a model school when it came to female athletics. Brown claimed 17 women’s teams out of 35 total, the second largest number in the Ivy League. So when a federal court in 1995 found Brown’s athletic department guilty of violating Title IX, a 1972 law prohibiting gender discrimination at federally-funded institutions, schools everywhere were forced to reexamine their approach to women’s sports.

The problem started as a result of budget crunches in the early 1990s. With the University facing a $1.6 million budget deficit, President Vartan Gregorian was looking for a way to save money. When he told Director of Athletics Dave Roach to decrease spending in the Athletics Department, Roach responded immediately by cutting funding for men’s water polo and golf and women’s gymnastics and volleyball, and transitioning these sports to club level. Roach didn’t count on the idea that the women athletes would fight back.

Ultimately, Roach’s decision led to Cohen v. Brown University, a landmark class-action suit that cost Brown millions of dollars while simultaneously changing the status of women’s sports at universities across the country.

Even before the lawsuits, female athletes said they were under-funded compared to men’s team. Amy Cohen ’92 said at one point the gymnastics team even had to sew their leotards themselves.

Cathy Fulford, assistant athletic director at Brown and then coach of the women’s volleyball team, recalls being kicked off the court during practice midseason by the men’s basketball team. Although the team practiced off-campus late in the evening, the University provided no transportation. The basketball team had buses that carried them to and from the gym.

The transition from the varsity to the club level was easy for many members of the men’s teams. Almost all of the members of the men’s water polo team were on the swim team as well, allowing the men to continue to compete at the varsity level. The golf team remained a club team.

After the gymnastics and volleyball teams dropped in status from “Club Varsity” to “Intercollegiate club” status, meaning that expenses for coaches, uniforms, travel and equipment were no longer the responsibility of the school, the girls held fund-raisers so they could remain competitive.

While the volleyball team managed to raise enough money from parent donations to cover their costs, the gymnastics team had to solicit donations by performing backflips on the Main Green and asking for funds from other schools. According to Lisa Stern ’95, the last recruited gymnast to come to Brown before the team was cut, suing the University was “the last thing we thought we would ever be doing.”

But without University support, the situation for the teams looked dire. Without varsity status, coaches could not recruit new members. They also had trouble finding other teams willing to play them, resulting in holes in their season schedules.

Cohen decided to look elsewhere for help. She enlisted the aid of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. In April 1992, the firm filed suit against Brown, stating that by cutting the women’s teams, the University had committed a violation of Title IX.

Lynette Labinger of Rooney & Labinger in Rhode Island represented Cohen. While she based her defense partially on the numerical imbalance between male and female athletes, she said the real issue at hand was Brown’s attitude towards women’s sports.

Labinger said she was surprised the case ever made it to court.

“There was a history at Brown of greater support for men’s sports. This wasn’t a new, isolated thing. They put up with second-class status because they just wanted to play their sport, not focus on litigation,” she said.

Roach told the Providence Journal in April 1991 that “all our sports are not the same,” and that “if our football and basketball teams do well, I think all our sports will prosper.”

The University administration, headed by Brown General Counsel Beverly Ledbetter as well as David Reichley, then interim vice president for university relations, refused to support renewed funding for the teams, arguing that the lawsuit was baseless.

Brown argued that while the ratio of female to male athletes was 39 to 61, lower than the percentage of females to males in the student body, the disparity was a reflection of women’s lesser interest in sports and that treatment of male and female sports teams was equal.

Roach told The Herald in April 2004 that “the whole case came down to proportionality and numbers.”

To be in compliance with Title IX, Brown was required to meet one of three tests. The school had to either prove that it accommodated all existing interest and ability among female athletes, or show that it had made the effort to do so through continuous expansion of its athletics program. The third alternative was to show that the ratio of male-to-female athletes roughly corresponded to the proportion of male to female students.

In 1993, one year after the students filed suit, the first district court of appeals ruled that Brown failed to meet even one of the designated criteria. The University appealed to the Supreme Court and, in 1997, the Court denied Brown’s appeal without comment, leaving the appelate court ruling as it was.

Arlene Gorton, who worked in the Brown athletics department from 1961 to 1997 as a physical education instructor, coach and associate director, said that, up until the lawsuit, Brown’s support for female varsity athletes was “woefully inadequate.”

“Brown had one of the best programs for women’s athletes. That’s true, but it wasn’t equitable,” Gorton said.

Only when the girls pressed charges, Gorton said, did support for the women’s teams increase.

“The ongoing case precipitated improvement,” Gorton said. “Teams were added, women got trainers, there was an increase in the allocation of funds.”

Cohen and Stern also saw improvements being made.

“The case forced the University to take Title IX seriously,” Cohen said.

But they recalled the issue also polarized students and the athletics department alike. While many felt that by pursuing the lawsuit, the girls would ultimately destroy men’s athletics, in the end no male teams had to be cut for the University to achieve proportionality.

“That’s something we’re very proud of,” Stern said.

Cohen also referred to the fact that largely disproportionate amounts of money continued to be spent on the men’s football and basketball teams, saying that Title IX’s effects on men’s teams has been continuously misrepresented.

“The law was passed in 1972. Universities have had 30 years to plan their compliance. I don’t think asking for equality is a bad thing,” Cohen said.

Gorton called the University’s threats to reduce the status of some men’s varsity teams to club “rhetoric intended to cloud the issue and arouse emotions.”

“Other Ivies were pouring tons of money into their women’s programs and Brown was spending money on lawyers fees,” Gorton said. “The University’s position seemed to be that the courts were not going to control Brown’s actions.” Between 1993 and 1997, the University spent almost $2 million on legal fees, close to the amount of the budget deficit that was the original cause of the cuts.

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