Friday, February 3, 2023

MSU swim team won't be reinstated, but female swimmers hopeful light will shine on gender equity

January 19, 2023
MSU Swim and Dive stands at the Board of Trustees meeting on Oct. 28, 2022.
MSU Swim and Dive stands at the Board of Trustees meeting on Oct. 28, 2022. —
Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

Members of MSU’s cut swim and dive team reached a settlement with MSU, ending the two-year Title IX legal battle. While the agreement leaves the female swimmers without the reinstatement of the team they hoped for, it included payouts to the plaintiffs, a review of gender equity in all MSU athletics and limits on MSU’s ability to cut and modify women’s teams going forward.

“It’s not exactly what we wanted, with the women's team not being reinstated,” plaintiff Ava Boutrous said. “But I'm very happy with what we came to an agreement on in terms of genuine equity, and bringing more light to that at my school.”

Under the agreement, MSU will pay $10,000 to each of the eleven swimmers named in the case and $640,000 of their attorneys’ fees. This $750,000 cost is on top of the amount the university has spent on its legal defense in the case. MSU did not release that amount.

The settlement also outlines a third-party review and repair process for gender equity in MSU athletics.

First, the university will work with the plaintiffs and their attorneys to select a Gender Equity Director. Then, that person will use athletic department data and private meetings with coaches and players to assemble a Gender Equity Review of the university's athletics department by Sept. 1.

After the review is completed, MSU will work with the Gender Equity Director to “address all issues of inequity” that are found, and bring MSU into Title IX compliance by the end of the 2026-2027 school year.

The settlement ensures transparency throughout these events, with requirements that the review, plan, and Title IX data used for them be posted to MSU’s website and the MSU athletics site.

Since 2020, the plaintiff's lead attorney Lori Bullock and her firm have achieved settlements for college athletes requiring similar reviews at ten other universities. She said these reviews tend to see “inequities uncovered in areas that (her) clients didn't even know existed” when they filed their case.

Outside of the review, the settlement also includes specific limits to future changes to women’s athletics at MSU.

If the gap between men’s and women’s roster spots widens to more than 28 women for two consecutive years, the university will have to add a varsity women’s team of some sort. MSU also cannot close that gap by cutting student athletes, the only cuts it can make under the settlement are through natural attrition — not filling the spots left by graduating or transferring students.

MSU also agreed in the settlement to not cut any women's team entirely.

The settlement includes one specific mandate of attrition, with the women’s rowing team needing to be only 85 members within the next five academic years. Swim and dive advocates have previously criticized the university, saying it pads the number of female opportunities with its large women’s rowing team. 

“Looking at the historical data that MSU produced to us in this case, they would often claim somewhere in the 90s for how many women were on the rowing team, but if you took a look hard look at that information ... a huge portion of those women were walk-on recruits, and they would quit the sport completely by early to mid October,” Bullock said. “They weren't even participating in the Big Ten season.”

All the terms of the settlement expire at the end of the 2029-2030 academic year. The agreement outlines only four scenarios in which MSU could escape these requirements: a war on U.S. soil or reinstatement of the draft, new laws or regulations which retroact relevant parts of Title IX, “apocalyptic level natural disaster,” or another pandemic “materially affecting the ability of individuals to engage in normal daily activities.”

Despite their excitement about the provisions in the settlement, many of the plaintiffs were upset by the scope of the legal battle. They said it seemed between the cost of MSU’s legal defense and the cost of executing the settlement, the money and effort the university put into fighting to keep them out of the pool is greater than what it would cost to put them back in. 

“It really makes me feel neglected,” Boutras said. “That my sport, what I put my life into, is not as important just because it doesn't bring in amounts of money that compare to football and basketball.”

On their plans to continue pushing for reinstatement, the plaintiffs are sure the fight won’t stop here, but are weary of MSU’s willingness to hear their concerns.

“I think the issue isn't us,” plaintiff Madeline Riley said. “I think it's Michigan State's inability to sit down and have a conversation with us.”

The plaintiffs and other former swim and divers hope to meet with MSU athletic director Alan Haller, and continue lobbying the new Board of Trustees.

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