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Is the UConn athletic department guilty of violating Title IX?

Members of the UConn women's rowing team got their Warholian 15 minutes of fame last week, walking from campus to Storrs Center in protest of the university's budget-related decision to cut the program.

This story, as many others about "fringe" sports often do, cleared the news cycle quickly. But its tentacles have not. And should not. Title IX lawyers representing the team have threatened a class action lawsuit against UConn if the team isn't reinstated. The bigger news: UConn officials may be answering Title IX compliance questions even if women's rowing returns.

Is the UConn athletic department guilty of violating Title IX? Enough questions hover to make the issue absolutely worth dissecting, even amid the inconvenience of complexity. At issue here is the marriage of a relatively obscure sport with an esoteric, but frequently referenced law that often generates eyerolls among more traditional sports fans (read: men).

"We just want UConn to treat us like their male athletes," team member Erica Bushey of Simsbury said last week in a phone conversation. "While we're trying to plead our case to reinstate rowing, we also want to make it known that this is a women's issue in general."

Does UConn treat its female athletes with the same care, respect and opportunities as its male athletes? Bushey, her teammates and its lawyers are discovering the answer to that question is a no. That may surprise UConn loyalists, whose general frame of reference toward women's athletics is positive, through the lens of a nationally-ranked basketball program. But the school's treatment of female athletes as a whole is deeper and more complicated — as Title IX lawyers and other research indicates.

Title IX, a federal law enacted in 1972, states "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

There is no denying the 50-year-old law could use an update. But it is law and by definition must be followed, despite individual opinions and perhaps irritation from UConn fans (and employees?) who would like women's rowing and other nitpicky Title IX issues to go away quietly.

There are three ways — "prongs" — under which universities can satisfy Title IX requirements: proportionality, expansion and accommodating interests. Only one of three must be met to ensure compliance.

Proportionality: Female sports participation should be proportional to female enrollment in the school (if 49 percent of overall enrollment is female, then 49 percent of the athletes participating should be female).

Expansion: The school shows a recent history of expanding sport offerings for women (new sports or competitive levels for women within the past three to five years).

Accommodating interests: The interests and abilities of female athletes have been fully and effectively accommodated (as documented by regularly-administered surveys of females for emerging interests in sports).

UConn may be in violation of all three.

UConn's website reports that for the 2020-21 school year, 52 percent of its 24,371 undergraduates are female. That, however, includes 5,454 students from regional campuses who would not be playing sports, thus making it difficult to find an accurate breakdown on the Storrs campus.

One website reported that UConn has 719 students-athletes, 378 of whom are women. The 51.6 percentage suggests compliance. However, UConn's press release of June 24, 2020 said the school would be serving 20 sports and approximately 530 athletes, refuting the other numbers.

Enrollment figures from 2018-19 indicated the overall student body at UConn (Storrs) was 51.1 percent female (9,399 females to 8,998 males). UConn's athletic population was 49.3 percent female and 50.7 percent male (387-398). Technically, female athletes should register more than 50 percent to reflect the general enrollment numbers.

My guess is that this is intentionally confusing — and among the reasons Title IX lawyers get paid. The true numbers are murky, but with the appearance of UConn's noncompliance in the other two prongs, would you be willing to give the school the benefit of the doubt?

It would be hard to argue that UConn has satisfied the expansion prong, what with the removal of approximately 60 rowers and with the recent addition of no other female sports.

Meanwhile, college administrators view "accommodating interests" as equal opportunity from support and operational standpoints. Here is where the rowing team presents some damning evidence.

Bushey said the boathouse at her high school in Simsbury was far better equipped. Her teammates said in a published report that UConn's boathouse has no running water (they must use a Porta-Potty). They share a trainer with men's soccer, but cannot access the school's Rizza Performance Center (opened primarily for soccer last year) because no member of the rowing team was given the code.

"We've already brought out so many different things and discrepancies," Bushey said. "We're on to a bigger issue, such as differences in spending on women's and men's teams and the different treatments."

Example: Bushey and her teammates have used Freedom of Information to examine spending numbers. Their discovery, per FOI: In 2019, UConn athletics spent 47.573 percent of its budget on men's teams and 28.43 percent on women's teams and 23.99 percent non-specific sports teams.

"There's still a huge difference, as you can see," Bushey said.

As we've learned from the recent charade at the University of Hartford, numbers can be manipulated in many ways. But unless you have completely wrapped yourself in the UConn flag, the evidence here ought to raise concerns that at least must be investigated.

No one should deny the pressures associated with UConn's budget issues. But that shouldn't absolve athletic director David Benedict and his shabby treatment of women's rowing coach Jen Sanford, who learned June 23, 2020 — one day before a Board of Trustees meeting — that the university was going to drop her program.

It left Sanford, her rowers and anyone else associated with the program barely time to process the information, let alone rally, organize, and perhaps fundraise. Benedict's suspicious behavior raises the question of whether his intention was to blindside Sanford and make this a railroad job, perhaps using rowing's obscurity in his favor.

Benedict might be interested in the recent developments at East Carolina, where women's swimming and diving was reinstated in January after its team members threatened a similar lawsuit.

The Raleigh News & Observer quoted attorney Arthur Bryant, who represented the students and sent ECU officials a letter threatening the lawsuit, arguing that eliminating the teams is a "flagrant violation" of Title IX.

Bryant, according to the newspaper, "pointed out the disproportional representation of scholarship opportunities at ECU. Nearly 60 percent of ECU students are women, but scholarships are roughly allocated 50-50 between men and women."

The newspaper then reported that ECU officials, through "self-scrutiny," determined that changes were required. In addition to reinstating the sports, the school, "said it will develop and implement a Gender Equity Plan over the next year that will provide a blueprint for assessing, monitoring and enhancing gender equity in intercollegiate athletics."

Amazing how such epiphanies happen when the word "lawsuit" channels its inner Ali and threatens to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

The guess here is most UConn fans will yawn, dismiss rowing, question the already questionable numbers and hope this all magically vanishes. All typical reactions to the inconvenience of complexity. Meanwhile, the athletic hierarchy might have some explaining to do. Very soon.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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