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Feds investigate EMU athletics over gender inequality claims

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

In addition to two lawsuits over its decision to eliminate four athletic teams, Eastern Michigan University is facing an investigation from the federal government.

The Office of Civil Rights is looking into the university's athletics department, which is being accused of not providing as many opportunities for female athletes as it does for males.

The university strongly disputed that notion in an 11-paragraph statement, released Tuesday. In the statement, the university said it will "cooperate fully" with the OCR investigation.

"As we have stated previously, the decision to eliminate four sports programs was extremely difficult," the statement read, in part. "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."

In March, Eastern Michigan announced it was eliminating four sports teams — men's wrestling and swimming and diving, and women's tennis and softball — to save the athletic department $2.4 million annually.

Since that announcement, which was made the same day athletes in the affected programs were told, there has been significant outcry from the athletic community, hoping for a reversal in the decision. There have been fundraising efforts in addition to two lawsuits — one filed in Washington County Circuit Court on May 10 claiming Eastern Michigan violated the state's Open Meetings Actin cutting the sports, the other a Title IX lawsuit filed by two Eastern Michigan athletes in United States District Court of Eastern Michigan on June 15.

In issuing its statement Tuesday, the university said it is requesting a stay in the June 15 lawsuit, claiming the lawsuit and the OCR investigation overlap, and that the OCR has "broad authority."

Despite the outcry, the university continues to insist that the decision is final regarding the elimination of the four sports teams.

Title IX was enacted in 1972, and stipulates universities must offer athletic opportunities for female and male athletes consistent with the student-body enrollment. The university didn't have numbers available Tuesday as to how many female athletes and male athletes are at the school.

According to recent U.S. News and World Report's university rankings, Eastern Michigan's undergraduate student body is about 59 percent female. According to last year's rosters, Eastern Michigan has about 243 male athletes and 213 female athletes.

Eastern Michigan does note that it still has 10 female sports teams, to seven male sports teams. Of the 243 male athletes, 104 are from the football team. A program that long has lost money and been subsidized by student tuition dollars, there have been calls for several years to eliminate the football program, or drop to Division II, but university officials, including president James Smith and athletic director Scott Wetherbee, say that is not a fiscally feasible option.

"This is what needed to be done," Wetherbee said earlier this year. "We didn't really have any other options."

The four-sport cuts affected 83 student athletes (58 male, 25 female), and several coaches — one of which, wrestling coach Dave Bolyard, recently joined the staff at Michigan as an assistant coach. Another coach, swimming coach Peter Linn, is staying at the university to continue coaching the women's team. The university said it would honor scholarships of the affected athletes through graduation, or help them secure opportunities at other universities.

The June 15 Title IX lawsuit was filed on behalf 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 in the lawsuit to have multiple schools interested in her, but to continue playing collegiate tennis, she said she would have to return to the Czech Republic and start the visa process over. She claims the time that would take could cost her a chance to play elsewhere next season.

"I feel that my college experience has been taken from me," Chretien says in the lawsuit.

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

The open-meetings lawsuit was filed in May by longtime wrestling boosters Douglas and Mary Willer, of Hillsdale County. Eastern Michigan has said that lawsuit is without merit, because the elimination of athletic teams was a decision made at the administrative level, and didn't require a board vote.