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A federal judge has ordered West Chester University of Pennsylvania to reinstate its women’s gymnastics team after finding that the April 2003 decision to eliminate the program violated Title IX, the federal law that requires increased opportunities for women in intercollegiate sports. In his 32-page decision in Barrett v. West Chester University, U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick rejected the university’s argument that it had abided by the law because it had also eliminated the men’s lacrosse team. Instead, Surrick found that since WCU was already in violation of Title IX prior to April 2003 — due to a significant gender disparity between its enrollment rates and sports participation — it was not free to eliminate any women’s teams. Surrick also rejected the argument that the addition of a women’s golf team saved the university from being in violation of Title IX because only one woman has so far expressed any interest in playing golf. “What defendants offer as a replacement for a team with a tradition and history of accomplishment is a mere promise of a golf team for next spring,” Surrick wrote. The university was on notice of its Title IX problems, Surrick found, because a university committee had warned years ago that the school was not in compliance. “WCU could have heeded the warning of its internal committees and avoided this problem. WCU intentionally made the decisions that brought them to this courtroom, knowing full well the potential implications,” Surrick wrote. Surrick also found that elimination of the team would cause “irreparable harm” to its members. “November is already upon us and we have therefore passed the time when the team would have ideally begun its regular training. Further loss of training time could lead to a loss in a competitive edge and an increase in the potential for injury,” Surrick wrote. “Preventing the 2004 season from moving forward will deny players one of only four competitive seasons at the college level. Several of the players are in their final year of school and would be denied their last opportunity to compete. Only the reinstatement of the gymnastics program could avoid this harm,” Surrick wrote. Surrick found that the team members “have already suffered harm” because the team lost three of its five recruits and one of its former participants when the university eliminated the team. “This loss adversely impacts the team’s ability to compete and to develop its program. Foregoing the 2004 season pending a full trial would eliminate the program’s ability to attract recruits for the 2005 season and would severely affect the team’s growth and development,” Surrick wrote. Issuing a preliminary injunction, Surrick ordered that WCU “shall immediately” reinstate the women’s gymnastics team, and that it must provide a coaching staff and funding for the team equal to last year’s funding. The ruling is a victory for attorneys William T. Hangley and Sharon F. McKee of Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin and Leslie A. Brueckner of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice in Washington, D.C. The plaintiffs in the suit are eight members of the former WCU women’s gymnastics team. A ninth plaintiff dropped out of the suit after deciding to transfer to Penn State University because of the team’s elimination. Named as defendants in the suit are WCU; its president, Madeleine Wing Adler; its athletics director, Edward M. Matejkovic; and Barbara Cleghorn, the university’s assistant director of athletics for eligibility and compliance. Surrick found that WCU was warned as early as 1995 that it was not in compliance with Title IX. In 1998, Surrick found, WCU created the Sports Equity Committee, which issued a report in April 2000 that said “student athletic participation is not proportional to the rates of enrollment,” and that “WCU does not have continuing program expansion for women (the under-represented sex).” In May 2001, Surrick found, the committee “voiced its frustration with WCU’s failure to take sufficient action to bring the school in compliance with Title IX in the area of coaching.” In a strongly worded letter to Matejkovic, the committee said: “We see the inaction of the University as placing West Chester University in jeopardy of civil litigation and/or investigation by the Office of Civil Rights.” The university argued that it was forced to cut athletic teams due to a budget crisis. Senior Deputy Attorney General Claudia M. Tesoro noted that, during the first two months of 2003, WCU learned that it would likely suffer a 5 percent reduction in its state funding. Tesoro said the athletic department was asked to absorb between $95,000 and $98,000 of those cuts. Urging Surrick not to issue an injunction, Tesoro argued that the public interest would best be served by allowing WCU, a public university, the financial autonomy to decide both which intercollegiate sports best meet the needs and interests of its own students, and how to allocate resources during a difficult economic time. Surrick said he could not disagree with Tesoro’s sentiment, but that the public interest also “demands that WCU comply with federal law.” Quoting from the 1992 decision in Cohen v. Brown University, Surrick found that “Title IX does not purport to override financial necessity. Yet, the pruning of athletic budgets cannot take place solely in comptrollers’ offices, isolated from the legislative and regulatory imperatives that Title IX imposes.”

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