Brown Ordered to Release Records on Demoting Women’s Teams

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Brown University was ordered to submit all documents related to its decision to demote five varsity women’s teams to club status this spring by the judge overseeing a newly reopened lawsuit against the Ivy League school over gender parity in sports.

U.S. District Judge John McConnell in Rhode Island Monday denied Brown’s request for a protective order covering some of the communications relating to its move. Civil rights groups say the recent team demotions violated a 1998 settlement in which the university agreed that each gender’s representation in its athletic program would be within 2.25% of its share of the undergraduate population.

Public Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island filed to reopen the case in June after the university announced plans to cut five varsity women’s sports teams and just three men’s teams as part of a broader effort to reshape its athletic program.

In July, McConnell ordered Brown to release “all documents concerning the elimination” of the teams. The plaintiffs said Brown failed to provide minutes from the meeting where the initial recommendation to cut the teams was made or certain communications by key decision makers explaining how the athletics department would achieve compliance with the 1998 settlement.

Brown had argued that some of the requested documents were irrelevant to the dispute and said the groups were engaged in a “deep sea fishing expedition.” The university also claimed the 1998 agreement is a mathematical calculation “entirely agnostic” concerning its state of mind in making decisions to transition teams between varsity and club status.

The judge said Brown must produce all materials requested by the plaintiffs and the scope of what may or may not be admissible will be determined at a later hearing.

In a statement, the university said it had fully complied with the previous discovery orders. “The University sought a protective order because the plaintiffs’ attorneys are seeking additional, far-flung discovery that has nothing to do with whether Brown will be in compliance with the Joint Agreement for the upcoming academic year,” said Cass Cliatt, a university spokesman.

Brown has said it will achieve compliance with the 1998 agreement through a co-ed varsity sailing team it plans to launch in the fall. Plaintiffs say it’s impossible to judge compliance based upon a team that doesn’t exist.

Experts say the outcome of the case could have broad implications for the enforcement of Title IX, the federal law against sex discrimination, in college sports. A ruling for Brown would likely give schools more leeway in how they achieve compliance with gender parity requirements.

The case is Cohen v. Brown University, 92-cv-00197, U.S. District Court, District of Rhode Island.

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