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MSU submits Title IX plan, contends it is still in compliance

January 6, 2023
<p>Junior freestyler Sophia Balow and junior freestyler Sheridan Phalen cheer for their teammates in the 200 Freestyle Relay at the CCS Nationals in Atlanta on April 10, 2022. The two of them started off the relay, which eventually won and got the meet record. </p>

Junior freestyler Sophia Balow and junior freestyler Sheridan Phalen cheer for their teammates in the 200 Freestyle Relay at the CCS Nationals in Atlanta on April 10, 2022. The two of them started off the relay, which eventually won and got the meet record.

Photo by Audrey Richardson | The State News

MSU submitted its Title IX plan in a legal battle with members of the women's swim team. A judge ruled in August that MSU is out of compliance and ordered the university to submit a plan outlining how the university regain compliance. MSU's plan contends it is still in compliance, and that if it isn’t, the issue would not be fixed with a swim and dive team.

This lawsuit came following MSU’s decision to cut the swim and dive team. A group of swimmers argue that by cutting a sport with many roster spots for women, the university has changed the gender-ratio. Their hope is that MSU will reinstate the women’s swim and dive team to fill the alleged participation gap.

The case centers around MSU's ability to comply with Title IX, a federal statute which mandates equal athletic participation between men and women at both private and public universities.

Inside MSU's Title IX compliance plan

In the plan, MSU contends it already on track to be compliant without any changes, as current enrollment and athletic-participation figures suggest the university will end the year with nine fewer female athletes than males.

“MSU is not aware of any court or administrative determination that a participation gap of only nine individuals – particularly at a university with over 800 student-athletes – violates Title IX,” the plan said.

It goes on to suggest if that gap widens in the future, MSU will close it without adding or cutting entire teams. Instead, the university plans to close it through attrition, which would see spots left by transfers or graduates unfilled so as not to cut athletic opportunities during anyone's time at MSU.

Whether or not that nine-athlete gap is compliant will be the subject of much debate in the upcoming trial. 

Swim and dive advocates that when the statute mandates “equal” participation, it means numerical equality of roster spots. MSU argues that’s an unrealistic standard, and that an overall percentage is enough to deem equality. Last month, MSU petitioned the US Supreme Court in hopes of having that area of the Title IX statute clarified, but the court did not take the case.

Even if MSU is somehow made to fill that nine-athlete gap, its compliance plan suggests it wouldn’t do so by reinstating the team. The plan points out the average “viable” NCAA women’s swim and dive team has 34.6 members, which would leave the gender-ratio more unbalanced than it currently is.

Other potential additional women’s teams that have been floated – like ice hockey, water polo, fencing and lacrosse – would also greatly exceed the nine-athlete gap. Instead, MSU would likely create exact numerical equality of roster spots by adding individual opportunities to various existing teams.

Bill Beekman's deposition

Other recent filings provide insight into why MSU has so strongly opposed reinstating the team. 

According to a deposition of former MSU Athletic Director Bill Beekman, the conversation surrounding cutting the swim and dive team began as early as 2018. Beekman said he began meeting with then-president John Engler over concerns that the department couldn’t be successful with 25 sports, these discussions continued beyond Engler's resignation and into the tenure of former President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. They looked at cutting track and field or tennis, but ultimately, facilitates costs made swim and dive their choice.

In excerpts of his deposition attached to a motion filed by MSU’s legal team, Beekman says fixing the 50-meter outdoor pool once used by the team would cost $8 million dollars and enclosing it for year-round use could be a $20 dollar project.

It’s been suggested by advocates of the team that the students could practice in the 25-yard 6-lane pool at IM West, which is NCAA compliant. Though, in his deposition, Beekman describes a discussion in which MSU swim and dive Head Coach Matt Gianiodis tells him that practicing in the 25-yard pool would be “detrimental to the success of the team.”

“It was extremely hard to conduct a single practice of the student athletes in a pool that small,” the deposition said. “People would just sort of be on top of each other in the lanes.”

Beekman was also asked if there was discussion of reducing the size of the team by cutting only the men’s side, he responded saying that was never seriously discussed, as the facilitates problem goes beyond the cramped practice issue.

He says that not having a 50-meter pool would be detrimental to MSU’s recruitment. Because, while NCAA swimmers compete in 25-yard pools like the one in IM West, Olympic swimmers train and compete in 50-meter pools. Beekman says not having an Olympic pool at MSU, or even in the greater Lansing area, would deter talented recruits, many of whom hope to compete at the Olympic level and need to train for those trials.

Beekman goes on to say that the combination of the practice problem and the Olympics issue made clear that swim and dive was the best choice to be cut altogether.

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“If you don't have a 50-meter pool, you challenge yourself to recruit as competitively as those who do,” Beekman’s deposition said. “And that liability would exist regardless of whether you had a men's program, a women's program, or both.”

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