DETROIT (CN) – Two female Eastern Michigan University student-athletes filed a sex-discrimination class action over the school’s decision to shutter its tennis and softball teams.
In March, EMU announced that it had decided to end four sports programs – including the men’s swimming and diving and wrestling teams and the women’s tennis and softball teams – at the end of the 2018 spring season. The university said that it was forced to cancel the programs because of budgetary concerns and to fund its most popular academic programs. It estimated that the cuts would save $2.4 million.
In a class-action lawsuit filed Friday in Detroit federal court, EMU senior and tennis player Marie Mayerova and sophomore softball player Ariana Chretien say that the decision to eliminate the teams was part a “long-standing and ongoing” pattern of Title IX discrimination against female athletes. The plaintiffs are represented by Tracy Van den Bergh with Roberts & Freatman and Jill Zwagerman with Newkirk Zwagerman.
“The elimination of these programs, despite EMU also eliminating men’s swimming and diving and wrestling, does not bring them into compliance with Title IX,” the complaint states. “EMU already discriminates against its female students by offering too few athletic opportunities. By eliminating women’s tennis and softball, EMU will make this discrimination worse—despite also eliminating some men’s opportunities.”
The university says it has one of the smallest budgets in the Mid-American Conference and had previously offered 21 sports, more than other universities in the conference. Fifty-eight male students and 25 female students have been affected by the decision to cancel the teams and several have already graduated while others have transferred, the university said in a statement.
In response to the lawsuit, EMU says its budgetary actions were “wholly appropriate and justified” and that it does not discriminate against its students.
EMU has an annual operating budget of more than $307 million, according to the complaint, and is also constructing a $35 million multi-sport complex.
University spokesman Geoff Larcom said that since disbanding the teams, the focus has been on athletes and how to help them move to other schools if they decide to leave.
“The truth is that the university is honoring the scholarships of all athletes and is greatly facilitating their transfers,” Larcom said in a phone interview. “In other words, if they choose to stay at Eastern Michigan University, their scholarships are going to be honored, and if they choose to go elsewhere, we are doing what we can to facilitate that and find them a good, competitive location.”
But Mayerova and Chretien claim EMU made the decision to end the teams in secret and that it caught players by surprise.
Mayerova, one of eight women on the varsity tennis team, and Chretien, one of 17 members of the softball team, have now been left “in limbo,” according to their complaint.
Although EMU said the students could keep their scholarships, Mayerova and Chretien claim that would mean giving up the sports they came to the university to play.
In an interview on Monday, one of their attorneys, Zwagerman, said her clients are passionate about their sports and had given up the right to move from school to school by signing a letter of intent with EMU.
“A couple of these young women have very specific circumstances as to why they chose EMU,” Zwagerman said. “This is something they’ve done their entire lives and to have the school just rip it out from underneath them is quite emotional, it is quite scary, it is quite devastating to these young women.”
Mayerova, who is from the Czech Republic, started playing tennis at an early age and was part of the EMU team that had a 16-10 record in 2018. She says that she does not have the financial resources to transfer to another school.
Chretien, of Ypsilanti, Michigan, is studying aviation – a major that is not widely offered by other schools. She says that even if she could find another school where she could train to be a pilot, it would be difficult to obtain a scholarship because those resources have already been allocated to other students.