Editorial: Judges should stay off athletic court

The Detroit News
Staring at a court-mandated deadline to reinstate its softball program, Eastern Michigan University has filed an appeal, arguing the federal judge in the case overstepped his authority by playing "athletic director."

Eastern Michigan University last year made some tough cuts to its athletic programs to meet the demands of a tight budget and declining enrollment. In return, the university got sued for a Title IX violation. Universities must follow federal law, but they also have an obligation to taxpayers who help fund these institutions and students who pay tuition.

In this case, a judge is attempting to play athletic director, and mandating the university keep a team EMU says it can’t afford.

That’s troublesome, especially since it appears that the university has met the demands of Title IX, the law that forbids gender discrimination at schools receiving federal funds. Ensuring fairness in sports is one of the law’s most basic functions.

Last March, EMU eliminated four varsity sports teams: men’s wrestling, men’s swimming and diving, women’s softball and women’s tennis.

More:Eastern Michigan appeals ruling, says federal judge acted like athletic director

The university says these cuts impacted men more than women, bringing the balance of student athletes more in line with the student population -- a requirement of Title IX.

Following the lawsuit, however, federal Judge George Steeh in February ordered the university to reinstate the softball team, and hire a coach by April 1. EMU responded by filing a request for an emergency stay with the 6th U.S.Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming the federal court’s demand would cause “irreparable harm” to the university.

In the appeal, the university argues: “The undisputed evidence established that EMU’s budget reductions disproportionately affected male student-athletes: after the reductions the proportion of athletic opportunities on women’s teams actually increased from 43 percent to 50 percent. This undercuts the notion that the budget actions were themselves intentional gender discrimination in violation of Title IX.”

EMU had planned to add women’s lacrosse as an alternative to softball, and university spokesman Walter Kraft says there is more overall interest from students in playing lacrosse and that it would be a better recruiting tool as well as allowing a higher number of women to participate. 

Last fall, the university reinstated the women’s tennis program, but it remains reluctant to bring back softball, which it says costs about $870,000 a year compared to $650,000 for lacrosse. 

That's a reasonable rationale for a university dealing with budget shortfalls.

"Title IX does not permit federal judges to serve as athletic directors," university lawyers wrote in the appeal. "Title IX does not require the maintenance of any particular sports.”

Prior to eliminating the four teams last year, EMU had the highest number of teams in the Mid-American Conference at 21. Now, with tennis returned, there are 18, which brings the university more in line with others — 11 are women's teams and seven are men's.

It can’t cut much more if it wants to keep its NCAA Division 1 status, which requires 16 sports minimum. The MAC requires football, men's and women's basketball, and volleyball. 

As long as EMU is offering equal opportunity to male and female athletes, forcing it to bring back a particular (and costly) sport seems overly meddlesome.