ALBANY (CN) – Four aspiring tennis greats brought a federal class action Friday against the State University of New York at Albany for disbanding their team just before championships.
“The decision to end women’s tennis at SUNY Albany left the players – all but one of whom were foreign students – in limbo,” the complaint states. “For the foreign players, the option was to withdraw from defendant SUNY Albany, give-up their visas, and return to their countries of origin, only to restart the process of applying to universities with the hope of gaining admission, obtaining scholarships, winning a spot on another tennis team, and securing a new visa, all before the next season began. The women could have stayed at SUNY Albany and kept their scholarships. But these women are athletes, who trained from an early age to play tennis, who were recruited by SUNY Albany to play tennis, and who came to defendant’s campus to play tennis. The choice to stay and forego their dream – a choice that their male counterparts would never be required to make – was not a real choice or a viable option for these plaintiffs.”
SUNY Albany’s decision to shutter its women’s tennis program began in secret, according to the complaint, shortly after the hiring of Mark Benson as athletics director.
Though Benson allegedly lacks experience directing an NCAA Division I program, such as the SUNY Albany women’s tennis team, he has a reputation for packing stadiums with paying fans.
This was in desperate need at Albany, which was just about to open its 8,500-seat multisport complex in January 2013 when it learned that the New York Giants ended their 16-year run of conducting summer drills at the school, according to the complaint.
Along with four of the nine players who made up SUNY Albany’s female tennis team, Friday’s complaint is led by coach Gordon Graham.
The complaint says Benson informed Graham in March 2016 that SUNY Albany would terminate the women’s tennis team, opening up its $365,000 operating budget for redistribution.
Graham said he could not keep Benson’s secret from the players as they prepared for the America East Conference Championships, slated for May 2016.
“He had recruited them from around the world and plaintiff Graham knew they would be devastated,” the complaint states.
Graham and his assistant coaches then took the players to Benson himself. “After that meeting a furious Benson screamed at and threatened Graham,” the complaint states.
The players offer a theory about why Benson kept his actions secret: “to deprive [them] of any effective opportunity to contest the decision.”
“This secret decision also denied Plaintiffs any opportunity to plan for, protect themselves against, or mitigate the sudden and devastating impacts on their personal and academic lives and sports careers,” the complaint continues.
Casting himself as a whistleblower, 65-year-old Graham says he faced pressure to retire.
“Having failed to persuade him to retire with demotions and humiliation, in July 2016 defendant SUNY Albany notified plaintiff Graham that despite five years of excellent annual reviews and championship results, his contract would not be renewed after it expired on August 14, 2017,” the complaint states.
While the coach seeks damages for age discrimination, the athletes want an injunction against violations of Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in education.
They note that their team hardly makes a dent in SUNY Albany’s more-than $540,000,000 budget.
“Merely rounding the roster caps for a few of its seven men’s teams” would make up the difference, according to the complaint.
“This would be an even lighter burden for the next year, as there are only two of the women’s tennis team’s players who remain enrolled at the university,” the complaint states. “Upon information and belief, defendant would gain public relations and enrollment advantages from doing so, which could be economically advantageous in attracting more students by demonstrating to student-athletes prompt action and commitment to comply with Title IX by offering more opportunities for its female students. The first two championship-level tennis players are currently on campus, the former head coach of women’s tennis is still present in the community, the coach handles all the organizational, scheduling, logistical, and training for the program, his contract is still warm, and the program’s cost is insignificant. If defendants were not merely retaliating against the plaintiffs, reinstating women’s tennis would be the easiest of baby steps toward both Title IX compliance and mitigation of ongoing harm.”
Lead plaintiff Isidora Pejovic noted that she attended Albany on a student visa from Serbia.
Though she was recruited by other schools when the tennis program at SUNY Albany disbanded, the rising junior says “but did not have the resources or ability to transfer.”
To transfer Pejovic would have had to apply for and obtain admission to another institution with room and a scholarship for her on the women’s tennis program, then withdraw from SUNY Albany, return to Serbia, forfeit her student visa, and reapply for a new visa specific to a new school.
NCAA rules allow student-athletes in Division I program “only … a single transfer to a Division I school,” according to the complaint.
South Korea-born Chae Bean King and Alba Sala Huerta of Spain have similar stories. Chassidy King, the fourth plaintiff, was the only U.S. citizen on the team.
The complaint notes that federal education officials investigated the civil rights issues alleged here, but that the “toothless” resolution reached with the university requires it only to stop violating Title IX not later than the 2020-21 academic year.
SUNY Albany faces no sanctions for its present misconduct, however, and no threat of sanctions if it fails to comply by the 2020-21 deadline.
The plaintiffs are represented by Bernays Barclay of Rimon PC.