EMU faces second lawsuit over decision to cut 4 sports

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Eastern Michigan decided to cut four sports while sparing football.

Eastern Michigan University is facing a second lawsuit over its controversial decision to eliminate four sports.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in the Federal Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, claims the university has violated Title IX legislation and discriminates against female athletes by providing fewer opportunities than are available for male athletes.

The plaintiffs, including two female varsity athletes, claim in the 34-page lawsuit that the university concealed its discussions to eliminate four sports — men's wrestling, men's swimming and diving, women's softball and women's tennis — to avoid "any effective opportunity to contest the decision."

Eastern Michigan announced the athletics decision in late March, saying it will save the university $2.4 million a year.

Despite growing public outrcries and grassroots fundraising efforts, university officials, including president James M. Smith and new athletic director Scott Wetherbee, have called the decisions final.

In a statement responding to this latest lawsuit, Eastern Michigan said, in part:

"The decision to eliminate four sports programs was extremely difficult. We initiated the action to reduce expenses in athletics consistent with strategic reductions across the university. These efforts are part of a comprehensive process to realign our budget to ensure our ability to continue to invest in key priority areas, such as high-demand academic programs that meet the needs of today's employers, and to modernize the facilities in which the programs are taught. ...

"We believe our budgetary actions in this matter are wholly appropriate and justified. We are currently carefully reviewing the lawsuit and will respond further at the appropriate time and manner."

In regard to the Title IX and gender-equity complaints, Eastern Michigan noted in its statement that it now fields 10 female sports and seven male sports. Among the 83 student-athletes affected by the cut, 58 were male and 25 female.

Prior to eliminating the four sports, Eastern Michigan had 21 varsity sports, most in the Mid-American Conference, despite having one of the conference's smallest budgets.

This latest lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order against the university and its decision to eliminate the sports, and is filed on behalf of two athletes: Marie Mayerova, a rising senior who played tennis at Eastern Michigan, and Ariana Chretien, a rising junior who played softball at Eastern Michigan.

Mayerova, 21, from the Czech Republic, claims to have multiple schools interested in her, but to continue playing collegiate tennis, she would have to return to the Czech Republic and start the process of acquiring a new visa to attend a new school. She claims the time it would take could cost her a chance to play elsewhere next season.

"I enrolled at EMU with the expectation that I could get my degree, improve my English, and play the sport I love," Mayerova wrote in a witness statement. "I feel that my college experience has been taken from me because the program was taken from us players suddenly and without time to prepare a change in our college plans."

Chretien, 19, from Commerce Township, claims to have multiple schools interested in her, but her major, aviation, is not offered at those schools. She said even if schools offer her both softball and aviation, she is struggling to secure scholarship money, because that typically is allocated well in advance of the following season.

"I enrolled at EMU with the expectation that I could get my degree in aviation, be close to my family, and play the sport I love," Chretien wrote. "I feel that my college experience has been taken from me because the program was taken from the entire team without time to prepare a change in our college plans."

In eliminating the sports, Eastern Michigan said it would honor the scholarships through graduation for athletes who chose to stay, while working to find other opportunities for students who wished to continue their athletic careers elsewhere.

Smith, Wetherbee and the Eastern Michigan Board of Regents are listed as defendants in the latest lawsuit.

Eastern Michigan has taken serious heat over its decision to eliminate these four sports while sparing football, which long has been the biggest drain on the athletics budget. But Wetherbee previously told The News that eliminating football, or dropping out of the MAC and into Division II, would case much more harm to the budget than good. 

In the previous lawsuit filed against Eastern Michigan, by long-time wrestling boosters Douglas and Mary Willer, of Hillsdale County, in Washington County Circuit Court on May 10, the university is accused of violating the state's Open Meetings Act.

Eastern Michigan disputes that claim, saying the sports-teams cuts were administrative decisions, not up for a vote by the Board of Regents.

"The Regents are neither required nor expected to make administrative decisions such as this," university spokesman Geoff Larcom said at the time. "To the contrary, Board policies clearly indicate that such decisions are a university management function.

"This is not unique to Eastern. Other universities have similar policies."