Quinnipiac settlement sheds light on Title IX compliance

Last week, after four years of court proceedings, the case of Biediger v. Quinnipiac was settled, ending a controversial plan to replace three varsity sports with competitive cheerleading.

800px-2008NCAAWomens-WigginsLayupThe controversy stemmed from a 2009 dispute between Quinnipiac University and members of the school’s Division I women’s volleyball team. In March 2009, the university announced that it would be cutting three sports programs: women’s volleyball, men’s golf, and men’s outdoor track. At the same time, the school announced the creation of a new varsity sport: competitive cheerleading.

Related Link: Read the Biediger v. Quinnipiac 2009 legal motion

The volleyball players and their coach alleged that the school’s decision was a breach of Title IX’s prohibition on sex-based discrimination in higher education.

U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill issued a preliminary injunction against the university, holding that their management of varsity rosters deprived female athletes of equal athletic participation opportunities.

According to Underhill, Qunnipiac had violated Title IX in three ways:

First, the university had erroneously defined competitive cheerleading as a varsity sport for the purposes of Title IX compliance. “Competitive cheer,” wrote Underhill, “may, sometime in the future, qualify as a sport under Title IX; today, however, the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students.”

Second, the university had distorted the number of athletes participating in women’s indoor and outdoor track by requiring that female cross-country runners join all three teams, even while for many their activity did “not amount to genuine athletic participation opportunities.”

Third, as corroborating evidence, Underhill found that the school had in the past engaged in roster manipulation—inflating the rosters of women’s teams and deflating that of men’s—thus supporting the finding that Quinnipiac was not offering equal opportunities for male and female athletes.

In 2011, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s holdings.  “We identify no merit in [the arguments of the university],” wrote the three-judge panel presiding over the decision, “and we affirm the challenged injunction substantially for the reason stated by the district court in its comprehensive and well-reasoned opinion.”

The Quinnipiac case came in a long line of legal disputes seeking to clarify the implementation of Title IX.

Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972 fundamentally reshaped educational opportunities across the United States. The legislation forbade any educational program, institution, or activity receiving federal financial aid from discriminating on the basis of sex.

As the law mandates, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal aid.”

Though the original legislation made no mention of intercollegiate sports, Title IX has become most famous for its impact on bringing more women into athletics.

In 1979, seven years after Title IX was passed, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) issued a final policy interpretation on the law, laying out a three-part test to verify Title IX compliance. This test set the stage for decades of wrangling as institutions and courts worked to negotiate the complicated relationship between gender equity, resource allocation, and representation in college athletics.

The HEW Test mandates that schools must meet one of the following three standards in order to be found in compliance of Title IX.

  1. The number of athletes from each sex at a school must be roughly equivalent to enrollment percentages, or
  2. A school must demonstrate a history and continuing practice of expanding athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex (most commonly, women), or
  3. A school must show that the interests and abilities of female athletes are being fully and effectively accommodated.

That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court held that individuals have a cause of action against a school for discriminatory policies in violation of Title IX. In Cannon v. University of Chicago (1979), Justice John Stevens, writing for the majority, ruled that a woman could sue the university for a denial of admittance to medical school.  The case became the foundation for dozens of lawsuits in the years to follow.

In Grove City v. Bell (1984), the Burger Court held that while Title IX applies even to private universities where a substantial number of students receive federal aid, the legislation is only relevant to the institution’s financial aid services, not to overall school programming. The ruling effectively ended the statute’s application to intercollegiate athletic programs beyond the regulation of athletic scholarships.

Four years later, however, in March 1988, the Civil Rights Restoration Act was enacted, mandating that the law apply to all operations of any school receiving such funds, overturning Grove City and reaffirming the relevance of Title IX in all aspects of college sports.

According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, approximately 294,000 girls participated in high school sports in 1971, the year before Title IX was enacted. At the collegiate level, that number was under 30,000. In 2012, at the 40th anniversary of the bill’s passage, those numbers had climbed to 3.2 million at the high school level, and nearly 200,000 in colleges and universities.

By 2009, then, when the women’s volleyball team at Quinnipiac University filed suit against the school, Title IX had become firmly entrenched in American culture, society, and law.

But even as opportunities for participation and competition had risen dramatically, institutions were still engaging in practices designed to distort the numbers of female participation in athletics.

As New York Times writer Katie Thomas wrote in a 2011 series on collegiate compliance of Title IX, “many [NCAA Division I institutions] are padding women’s teams rosters with underqualified, even unwitting, athletes. They are counting male practice players as women. And they are trimming the rosters of men’s teams.”

The Quinnipiac case brought an increasingly critical eye on such practices, and federal courts responded with injunctive relief for the female athletes who filed suit. According to Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation, “Many of these persistent gaps flow from the types of institutional practices that the court in Biediger v. Quinnipiac declared to be a violation of Title IX.”

After four years of court battles, the parties settled last week in favor of the original petitioners. As part of the agreement, scholarships for female athletes in track, cross-country, rugby, volleyball, ice hockey, and basketball increased. The school affirmed that women’s sports will receive at least half of the number of scholarships permitted by the NCAA, and committed to hiring new coaches for women’s teams, increasing compensation for these coaches, and improving facilities and services for female athletes.

Without a formal Supreme Court decision, it remains unclear what the legal ramifications of such a settlement will be; however, the outcome of the Quinnipiac controversy evidences growing scrutiny on the implementation policies and practices of institutions and athletic programs.

Abigail Perkiss is an assistant professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, and a fellow at the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy.  Follow her on twitter at @Abiperk.

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