Lawyers: MAC refusing to reinstate EMU women's tennis, softball

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

Lawyers for two Eastern Michigan female athletes suing the university over its decision to cut women's softball and tennis say they are "working very hard" with university officials to satisfy last month's court order that called for reinstating those two eliminated programs.

But those lawyers say the Mid-American Conference has thrown a curveball into the discussions, saying it will not add EMU softball and tennis back on to the 2018-19 athletics calendar.

Women's tennis and softball are played mostly during the spring season.

"We have not reached an agreement yet, but are working very hard with Eastern and the Court to implement the order," said Lori Bullock of Newkirk Zwagerman Law Firm, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, in an email to The Detroit News on Tuesday. "Unfortunately the MAC has stated it is refusing to put women’s tennis and softball back on the conference schedule this season. This is concerning and disheartening to the plaintiffs, and something we consider to be an unnecessary barrier."

A spokesperson for the MAC didn't immediately respond to request for comment Tuesday.

Eastern Michigan issued a statement Tuesday evening.

"The attorneys had a productive meeting with the judge today, and we look forward to continuing to work in the weeks leading up to the next status conference," the statement read. "We continue to look forward to a practical solution that keeps the university in compliance with its responsibilities under federal law and provides the best environment for our students."

Lawyers for the university and the two student-athletes — tennis player Marie Mayerova and softball player Ariana Chretien — met Tuesday afternoon for a conference at the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Michigan, in Ypsilanti.

Judge George Caram Steeh, in a 37-page decision issued last month, granted a preliminary injunction, the first legal victory for athletes affected by the university's March decision to eliminate four sports. Also eliminated were men's wrestling and men's swimming and diving.

The university claimed the cuts will save $2.4 million a year, but the court ruled Eastern Michigan wasn't playing by the spirit of Title IX legislation, with Steeh writing in his decision, "Financial hardship is not a defense for a Title IX violation." In a 2016-17 filing with the U.S. Department of Education, 59.74 percent of Eastern Michigan's student body was female, compared to 43.88 percent of the student-athlete population. Title IX demands the student body number be comparable to the student-athlete number.

Earlier this month, lawyers for Eastern Michigan issued a 66-page response to Steeh's decision, writing, "Preliminary and/or permanent injunctive relief is not appropriate under these circumstances."

The March cuts affected 83 athletes and eight coaches, many of whom already have moved on, including former head wrestling coach David Bolyard, who now is an assistant at Michigan. Eastern Michigan said it would honor the scholarships for athletes with eligibility remaining, should they choose to stay at the school.

Mayerova and Chretien claimed, in the original lawsuit filed in June, that there were roadblocks in trying to find new athletic opportunities. 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 the new school. Meanwhile, Chretien, from Commerce Township, claimed to have multiple schools interested in her, but that her major, aviation, is not offered. She also claimed it would be too late to secure scholarship funds at a new school.

Eastern Michigan officials have said 15 of the 25 female student-athletes affected by the March decision still have eligibility remaining, but that only six have committed to returning to the school.

Lawyers for the athletes and the university will meet again for another status conference Nov. 27.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984