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Female lacrosse players can continue Title IX claims

Fresno State women's lacrosse players sufficiently stated effective accommodation and equal treatment claims, a federal judge in California ruled Thursday.

(CN) — A federal court denied the California State University Board of Trustees’ request to dismiss in its entirety a suit brought by women lacrosse players who say Fresno State violated Title IX by treating them worse than players on other sports teams and eliminating their team due to pandemic-related budget cuts.

Fresno State announced it would be eliminating its women’s lacrosse team, along with its men’s tennis and wrestling teams, on Oct. 16, 2020, in an effort to ensure the financial stability of its athletics program, which it said was “dramatically impacted” by the pandemic.  

The plaintiff athletes said in their first amended complaint that the decision to eliminate their team was “entirely consistent with Fresno State’s history of sex discrimination in its intercollegiate athletic program,” but it still came as a surprise. 

“It is truly sad and disappointing that we have to sue Fresno State to make it comply with Title IX, treat women equally, and preserve our team,” women’s lacrosse team co-captain Megan Walaitis said in a news release issued in February by the firm Bailey Glasser, which is representing the plaintiffs. 

“But we have to stand up for our rights and fight,” she added. “Fresno State actively recruited us. We love being here and playing. But it’s trying to eliminate our team, already treating us like we’re not a varsity team, and discriminating against women throughout its intercollegiate athletic program.”   

In a press release announcing the cutbacks, Fresno State said it would continue to sponsor six men’s sports teams and 12 women’s teams and ensure “gender equity.” But by cutting the women’s lacrosse team, the plaintiffs say, the school is failing to provide women athletes with substantially proportionate athletic opportunities. Fresno State’s female enrollment for the 2020-21 school year was 60.5% and is expected to be the same next year, according to the complaint. 

The lacrosse players also claimed that Fresno State treated them “far worse” than other varsity teams throughout the last school year, allegedly acting as if their team had already been eliminated. 

“Lacrosse is a spring sport and would normally have off-season practices and training in the fall. Due to COVID, Fresno State promised to issue a ‘return-to-play’ plan to the lacrosse team, as it did for other sports. Lacrosse never received a return-to-play plan and, as a result, unlike men’s teams, did not have off-season training,” the 43-page complaint states. 

The women say that, unlike men’s teams, they were also kicked out of their locker room, didn’t receive uniforms in a timely manner, and were forced to use old equipment. 

The unequal treatment extended to quarantine policies, according to the complaint. The women say that when they were quarantined due to Covid-19 exposure, they were not provided housing and were told to pay for their own food, but that men’s teams in quarantine were provided such amenities. 

The athletes were also allegedly forced to share an off-season practice field with the women’s soccer team, which doubled as a parking lot during football games. 

“On Mondays, before the women’s lacrosse team could begin practice, it had to clean the field, which was often covered with bottle caps, glass, food, and other trash.” the complaint states. “To Plaintiff’s knowledge, no men’s team is required to clean tailgating or other similar trash from its practice field before it is able to use it.”

Senior U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii, a Bill Clinton appointee, was not persuaded by all of the plaintiffs’ arguments but did rule Thursday that they had sufficiently stated effective accommodation and equal treatment claims and denied the Board of Trustees’ request to dismiss their complaint in its entirety. 

In his 30-page order, Ishii wrote that although the athletes’ allegations don’t “fall neatly” into equal protection categories recognized by the 1979 interpretation of Title IX regulations, or “applicable case law,” they do allow for an inference that men’s teams received some benefits not given to the women’s lacrosse team. 

“Still, the allegations indicate, in several instances, that no men’s team at all was subject to the mistreatment (with respect to locker room access, equipment, cleaning duties and such) inflicted on women’s lacrosse,” Ishii wrote. “Moreover, the disparity in treatment alleged appears to be substantial.”

The Board of Trustees argued that the plaintiffs’ effective accommodation claim failed because there was no intentional discrimination against female athletes, and the schools’ elimination of the women’s lacrosse team at the same time as the men’s tennis and wrestling teams means that men and women athletes were treated the same.  

But the judge found that it was not the elimination of the women’s team that constituted that violation of Title IX.

“The violation is the unequal ‘barrier’ Fresno State has allegedly imposed to female participation in athletics by providing proportionately fewer participation opportunities for females than males,” Ishii wrote. 

However, he added that even if the plaintiffs succeed on their claim, that does not necessarily mean their team will survive, writing that “reinstatement of women’s lacrosse is but one of the remedies the Court could impose to ensure the proper allocation of participation opportunities between males and females should Plaintiffs prevail on their claim.”

The judge did grant the Board’s motion to dismiss a financial aid claim but granted the plaintiffs leave to amend it. 

A spokesperson for the Board of Trustees could not immediately be reached for comment after business hours Thursday night.

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