Judge orders Slippery Rock to reinstate female teams

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Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania must reinstate its women's swimming and water polo teams after a judge ruled its decision to drop them violated federal Title IX guidelines.

The university, faced with a $2 million deficit, dropped the programs in January, along with five men's sports, in a cost-cutting move aimed at saving $350,000.

But in May, 12 female athletes filed a suit against the school, claiming discrimination. They filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, and U.S. District Chief Judge Donetta Ambrose granted it on Friday.

"I'm ecstatic," said Beth Choike, the lead plaintiff in the case. She was recruited by the school to play Division I water polo and received a partial scholarship for that sport and for swimming.

Title IX requires schools that receive federal funding to provide equal sports opportunities for male and female students.

In her 23-page opinion, Judge Ambrose found that Slippery Rock has not been compliant with Title IX requirements and that officials were fully aware of that failure.

She also cited a university-commissioned study on Title IX compliance in 2001 that showed that even though the student population at Slippery Rock was 44 percent male, the student athlete population was 59 percent male.

Before cutting the programs, university President Robert Smith reviewed all 23 varsity sports and developed a ranking system for them, which included financial data -- such as the costs and revenues associated with each team -- and other things, such as how competitive each team was and the academic performance.

The women's water polo and swimming teams both have rich traditions, said Ms. Choike, 20, of Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

Ms. Choike believes the university's decision to cut the programs was made maliciously.

"There was no warning whatsoever," she said. "We truly did not feel it was right."

University officials declined to comment. One reason they cited in cutting the water sports -- for men and women -- was the pool needed $1 million in renovations.

But Judge Ambrose said the pool passed state inspections and was going to be used for physical education classes in the fall. There is also a recreational pool at the university that could be used.

Abbe Fletman, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in the case, said it was very important to the students that the judge's ruling be returned before mid-August when practices are to begin.

Swimming is a winter sport, and water polo a spring sport.

To grant the preliminary injunction, Judge Ambrose had to find, among other things, that the plaintiffs would suffer "irreparable harm" if the programs were not reinstated.

"By cutting the women's water polo and swim teams, [Slippery Rock] has denied the Student Plaintiffs the benefits accorded to women athletes who compete interscholastically," she wrote. "They develop skill, self-confidence, learn team cohesion and [a] sense of accomplishment, increase their physical and mental well-being, and develop a lifelong healthy attitude. The harm emanating from lost opportunities for the Student Plaintiffs is irreparable."

A requirement for granting the injunction is that Slippery Rock would not suffer substantial harm in doing so. Judge Ambrose found that reinstating both women's teams will cost $65,000.

Though she granted the injunction, the judge did find that if the university finds other ways to meet Title IX compliance, it can revisit the possibility of eliminating the women's teams.

The original lawsuit also alleged that the women's sports teams are not treated equally when compared with the men's, specifically related to fields, facilities, equipment and funding, Ms. Fletman said.

That part of the lawsuit will continue.


Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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