Judge rules Michigan State not Title IX compliant, but doesn't have to reinstate swimming

·4 min read

A U.S. District Court judge ruled Michigan State's decision to discontinue its men's and women's swimming and diving teams in October 2020 violates Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sexual discrimination in education.

Eleven Spartan swimmers and divers filed a lawsuit against the university in January 2021 claiming MSU's decision provides poor athletic participation opportunities for women athletes.

The plaintiff's request was originally denied, but after an appeal and remand for consideration, U.S. District Judge Hala Y. Jarbou has granted their motion in part.

The court's decision does not suggest MSU, which said it ended the swimming and diving programs due to budget reasons, needs to bring back its swimming and diving teams.

"It makes little sense to require MSU to use its finite resources to temporarily reinstate the women’s swimming and diving team where, even if Plaintiffs succeed on their claims, MSU could chart a different course in a few months’ time," read court documents acquired Tuesday by the Free Press. "Those resources are better spent on what is more likely to be a sustainable course of compliance over the long term.

"Accordingly, the Court finds that the appropriate relief is to require MSU to submit a compliance plan to reduce or eliminate the existing participation gap for women."

When asked for comment, MSU said it is reviewing Jarbou's decision to determine further steps.

Jim Phalen, father of MSU's 2020-21 Freshman of the Year Sheridan Phalen, said he's disappointed by Jarbou's decision to not reinstate MSU's swim programs, but is hopeful the university will consider doing so over the 60 days it has to prepare a compliance plan.

"There's still time for the right thing to be done," Phalen said. "It's all there if MSU will say, 'You know what, the easiest thing for us to do comply with Title IX is just to put those swimmers right back in the water like they were in October of 2020.'"

At that time, Michigan State heavily cited the COVID-19 pandemic as another reason behind eliminating its swimming and diving teams. It was the first varsity sport cut by the university since men's gymnastics in 2001. At the time, MSU planned to honor scholarships for both teams throughout 2020, and coaches contracts were honored through June 2021.

A DEEPER LOOK: Explaining the impact of MSU cutting swimming and diving programs

Phalen said MSU's decision came as a "complete shock" to both programs.

"There was no warning, given to anybody by anybody, that this was coming," Phalen said. "A reason given (in October 2020) was that there was no regulation pool to train in. That wasn't true. ... Michigan State had and has a perfectly legal competition pool for these kids to swim in.

"It's hard to know what exactly the real reasons were for the decision, but the reasons given to us came as a surprise. ... Whatever they thought in October 2020, it's certainly a different world now."

On July 29, Michigan State asked the Supreme Court to hear the case, but its decision to take the case won't come until early October because of its summer recess.

A growing concern in this case is it becoming a platform for broader challenges of Title IX, which passed its 50th anniversary in June.

Per court documents, MSU asserts the court should deny the plaintiff's request because "doing so would upset the status quo."

"When Plaintiffs filed this action in 2021, the women’s varsity swimming and diving team still existed," court documents read. "But after the Court denied their motion for a preliminary injunction, the 2020-2021 season ended and MSU continued with its plan to eliminate the team. Some Plaintiffs continued competing through a club team at MSU, but the varsity team no longer exists."

After the court's original decision was appealed, the Court of Appeals instructed it "narrow its focus" on MSU's participation gap between its men and women athletes. MSU houses more than 800 athletes and its student body is 51% percent female as of July.

Plaintiffs contend that MSU over counts women athletes by "adding to its participant count students who join the women’s soccer and volleyball teams after their seasons end, while not doing the same for students who join the football team." However, the court was not persuaded by the plaintiffs' argument due to a lack of evidence.

"With a possible exception for a couple of women on the crew team in the 2019-2020 season, MSU’s numbers appear to be accurate," the judge wrote.

Court findings illustrate MSU's participation gap matches the national average of the past eight years.

Free Press sports writer Chris Solari contributed to this report. Chandler Engelbrecht is a reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press and can be reached at CEngelbrecht@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @ctengelbrecht.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Court: MSU not Title IX compliant, not forced to reinstate swim teams