Friday, September 24, 2021

Michigan State women's swim and dive lawsuit heads to court for 1st time

February 12, 2021
<p>Then-sophomore Lauren Biglin swims during the meet against Cleveland State on Jan. 24, 2020, at McCaffree Pool. The Spartans defeated the Vikings, 163.5-135.5.</p>

Then-sophomore Lauren Biglin swims during the meet against Cleveland State on Jan. 24, 2020, at McCaffree Pool. The Spartans defeated the Vikings, 163.5-135.5.

Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

The lawsuit brought by Michigan State women's swim and dive began Feb. 10 with a motion for a preliminary injunction, arguing that the university is in violation of Title IX for eliminating the team.

If the judge does grant the injunction, then it will order MSU to keep swimming and diving as a sport at least for the next year, potentially leading to a full trial that would keep swim and dive permanently.

Plaintiffs mentioned multiple times that MSU used the programs to inflate its number of opportunities in women’s teams.

The plaintiffs said that swim and dive mirrors sports such as rowing and track and field in having rosters similar to that of the football team, and that opportunities available for women athletes are lower.

“MSU is very out of compliance with the number of scholarships that they give to women versus men,” MSU swim and dive lawyer Jill Zwagerman said.

Zwagerman said the football team gets almost 60 more scholarships than rowing and there is a disproportionate number of players who never actually compete in rowing, while football players have a better chance to play in four years on the team.

The novice rowing team, which serves as a developmental team for freshman rowers, is an example of how women’s sports are treated differently and without equity, seeing as how there are no novice level teams for any men’s sports, Zwagerman said.

The women's swim and dive program filed the lawsuit, the attorney representing them having previously told The State News that there wasn't presently an avenue for the men's team to fight the decision to cut their sport in court.

Both the rowing and women’s track and field teams have over 20 more athletes per team than the national average.

The University of Iowa, Quinnipiac University and Eastern Michigan University have all lost similar Title IX lawsuits in recent years.

In turn, the defendants quickly turned around and countered.

Defendants said the novice rowing team operates just as the varsity team, with the same coaches and opportunities to compete, unlike a junior varsity team. Further, they said plaintiffs had no proof of gender discrimination committed by MSU and base their case on assumptions and situations under different circumstances.

One unresolved issue is whether the swim and dive teams are separate or combined.

MSU women’s swim and dive argued they are separate, with two teams who don’t compete in a co-ed environment and who operate separately, like the men’s and women’s basketball teams.

The defendants disagreed, saying that the swim and dive program is a combined team, and both teams have the same coaches and hold events in a joint matter.

Defense attorneys Brian Schwartz and Scott Eldridge declined to comment on the pending litigation.

With the recent confirmation from athletic director Bill Beekman that the swim and dive programs would not be reinstated even after a $32 million donation from former MSU basketball player Matt Ishbia, it was bound to become a topic of conversation.

The defendants said that Ishbia is a private donor and has a significant say in where his money goes within MSU athletics.

The plaintiffs said that while Ishbia would be a private donor, it is the responsibility of the university to properly allocate the donated funds, which would be more than enough to maintain the swim and dive program.

Uncertainty still remains on the future of the swim and dive teams. After the hearing Zwagerman said she was hopeful about the hearing and its potential results. 

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“We thought the hearing went really well,” said  Zwagerman. “We’re very optimistic based on how the hearing went that the judge will grant the preliminary injunction.”

“The judge gets to decide how long it takes, we’re encouraged by the fact that she indicated that she was hoping to get a ruling out quickly,” said Zwagerman.

Zwagerman also said the discrepancies between facilities is an issue that will continue to be brought up, seeing as how the football facilities especially are miles ahead of any women’s facility.

While waiting for the judge to grant her ruling, MSU swim and dive continued their case to reinstate the program at the Feb. 12 Board of Trustees meeting.

At the meeting, author Adam Grant, former USA swimming board member Kathy Fish, and MSU alumni Mike Darbee and Robbin Tenglin spoke in favor of the swim and dive team.

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