A federal judge essentially ordered a timeout in Eastern Michigan University's decision to eliminate two women's sports teams, granting two student-athletes a preliminary injunction in a ruling handed down Thursday.
Judge George Caram Steeh of the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Michigan ruled in a 37-page decision that there is enough evidence that Eastern Michigan doesn't provide equal opportunities for female athletes.
"The court finds that the public interest is best served by upholding the goals of Title IX," Steeh wrote of the 1972 landmark legislation, which ruled a university's athletic opportunities must mirror the makeup of the general student body.
Steeh also wrote he is not in position to decide a reasonable outcome, instead ordering an Oct. 23 conference between Eastern Michigan representatives and lawyers for the two athletes who sued the university.
Eastern Michigan president James Smith and athletic director Scott Wetherbee announced in March it was cutting four sports programs — women's tennis and softball, and men's wrestling and swimming and diving. The move was said to save the university $2.4 million a year.
"We have received the court's opinion and order, and will fully review it in the days ahead, as well as analyze next steps," an Eastern Michigan spokesman said in a statement.
"As an initial matter, we will of course attend the status conference the judge requests."
The rest of Thursday's statement from Eastern Michigan was a repeat of previous statements, defending its decision to eliminate the sports programs.
A lawyer for the two athletes, tennis player Marie Mayerova and softball player Ariana Chretien, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the original lawsuit, Mayerova, from the Czech Republic, claimed transferring to a new school to play in the upcoming season would not be possible, because she would have to apply for and be approved for a new visa to attend a new school. Chretien, from Commerce Township, claimed to have multiple schools interested in her, but that her major, aviation, is not offered at those schools. She also claimed that even if the new school did offer her major, it was too late to secure scholarship funds.
While most of the athletes affected in the March cuts were male, numbers submitted to the U.S. Department of Education since 2003 show Eastern Michigan has struggled to provide female athletes a percentage that aligns with the student-body population. In the most recent filing, 2016-17, 59.74 percent of Eastern Michigan students were female, while the student-athlete population was 43.88 percent.
Eastern Michigan officials argued they have increased opportunities for female athletes, with 323 female athletes in 2017-18, compared to a low of 185 in 2008-09.
"The actual numbers reveal a participation disparity that has lingered for at least 15 years, with no evidence of a serious effort to address it," Steeh wrote.
This is the first sign of success for those protesting the Eastern Michigan cuts. A lawsuit filed in May by wrestling boosters claiming the university violated Open Meetings Act rules was dismissed in late August. The federal government planned in investigating Title IX standards after the two athletes filed their lawsuit, but that investigation was dropped earlier in August in favor of the lawsuit proceeding.
Women's tennis and softball take place in the spring, but Eastern Michigan officials have argued it's too late to save the programs. Fifteeen of 25 affected female student-athletes still had eligibility remaining, with six having committed to returning to Eastern Michigan. Other student-athletes are seeking transfers or have departed already. Equipment already has been discarded or donated.
University lawyers also argued there's no harm to the affected athletes, because they are allowed to keep their scholarships if they stay at Eastern Michigan.
In deciding to cut the four programs, Eastern Michigan officials declined to consider dropping football, despite the program being heavily subsidized by student tuition dollars. The university cited a desire to stay Division I and in the Mid-American Conference, which it argued adds value and prestige to all students and their degrees.
Eastern Michigan officials said it couldn't meet its budgetary needs by dropping male programs alone. Steeh dismissed that argument, writing, "Financial hardship is not a defense for a Title IX violation."