Brown University Demoted Women’s Teams, Now Must Explain

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Brown University faces a deadline Friday to turn over documents explaining why it eliminated five varsity women’s teams this spring, the latest twist in a landmark case over gender parity in college sports.

The Ivy League school in May announced plans to change the teams’ status from varsity to club, along with six men’s teams, to spend more money on other sports. After a backlash, Brown reinstated three of the men’s teams -- cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field.

That threw it out of compliance with a gender standard in a 1998 settlement it reached with a group of female athletes, according to Public Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island. In June, the plaintiffs asked a federal court in Providence to enforce the pact. The judge then called for the documents.

The papers will offer insight into how Brown chose which teams to cut -- a decision that Ellen Staurowsky, an expert on gender equity and Title IX in sports at Drexel University, says could use some sunlight. Title IX is the federal law barring sex discrimination at schools.

“It’s completely unclear to me how they’re abiding by anything in that settlement agreement,” Staurowsky said.

The five women’s teams were equestrian, fencing, golf, skiing and squash.

The settlement, reached after the athletes sued Brown, has served as a road map for Title IX compliance for college athletic departments across the country. It requires that if Brown cuts any intercollegiate women’s teams, each gender’s representation in the athletic program be within 2.25% of its share of the undergraduate student body for the year.

Public Justice and the ACLU say Brown’s move will cause irreparable harm to the female athletes by decreasing the level of competition and making it harder to be recruited.

College sports departments will be watching for the outcome, said Barbara Osborne, a professor of sport administration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

If the court says “the most important thing is just compliance and we don’t care what you do to be compliant, then that leaves schools with a lot of leeway,” Osborne said. “If they say no, this is the plan you’ve agreed to,” then “schools need to be on alert that if they are thinking about cutting programs, unless they are in Title IX compliance, they will lose their lawsuits.”

The plaintiffs are “asserting a hypothetical violation” that the school wouldn’t allow and “asking Brown to see into the future to provide data on rosters for the coming year,” spokeswoman Cass Cliatt said in a statement. She said they are doing so “at a time when a pandemic has created tremendous and unprecedented uncertainty around college enrollments and the status of athletic competition for the fall season.”

Brown says it will fulfill the accord with a new varsity sailing team with 25 women. The plaintiffs say Brown can’t comply by invoking a team that doesn’t exist.

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