Eastern Michigan University's seventh-inning pitch to avoid having to reinstate its softball program proved a swing and a miss in the eyes of a federal court.
A judge ruled Tuesday that Eastern Michigan must hire a softball coach by April 1 for competition next season, and must start competition for women's tennis next season.
It's a major victory for two student athletes who sued in June, demanding the university reverse its decision to cut the two sports.
"We are so pleased with the court's order," said Jill Zwagerman, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. "It holds EMU accountable for its violations and doesn't let it sneak out of its obligations to these female student athletes.
"We couldn't be happier there is a plan in place. Now we have to make sure EMU follows it."
Judge George Steeh issued his latest ruling less than two weeks after Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee proposed the university add women's lacrosse instead of bringing back softball, with Wetherbee arguing lacrosse would be cheaper in the long run, and provide athletic opportunities for more women, and thus bring the university closer in line with Title IX standards.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs, the two student athletes, strongly disagreed with that proposal.
And Steeh, in federal court in Ypsilanti, agreed with his ruling Tuesday.
"EMU shall carry out the court’s order with diligence to ensure there are
no further delays in reinstating the women’s varsity tennis and varsity softball
teams," Steeh wrote in his five-page ruling, possibly bringing an end to a legal battle that began shortly after Eastern Michigan announced in March that it was eliminating four sports, including men's wrestling and swimming and diving, to save money.
Steeh issued a preliminary injunction in September, setting the stage for the reinstatement of the women's sports.
He then ordered the sides into mediation to work out the specifics of the actions, and lawyers for the university and the athletes met three times, Oct. 23, Nov. 27 and Jan. 8. They made some progress, with the reinstatement of tennis, but then reached an impasse when Eastern Michigan continued to balk at softball's revival.
Eastern Michigan announced in November that it would bring back tennis, and quickly rehired the former coach, Jayson Wiseman. It was originally stated that tennis would compete this season, and then rejoin the Mid-American Conference for 2019-20. But the university'd decision proved too late for competition this season. The tennis roster currently only lists two players, one of whom is one of the plaintiffs, Marie Mayerova.
The other plaintiff is softball player Ariana Chretien.
The tennis program drew one participant to an informal meeting this fall gauging interest in playing the sport. A softball meeting drew 18 participants.
Steeh ruled Tuesday that because the university wasn't able to get tennis back for this season, it must use the funds that would've been allocated for this season of tennis to help with the program's recruiting and scholarships.
"The reinstatement of the tennis and softball teams represents only one step in the direction of the university’s compliance with Title IX," Steeh wrote.
Eastern Michigan said in March that by cutting the four sports programs, it would save the athletic department $2.4 million annually. Other departments across the university also were ordered into budget cuts. The athletic-department's decision, however, set off a firestorm throughout the university community, especially since Eastern Michigan refused to eliminate or drop to Division II its football program, which long has been subsidized by student tuition dollars.
The decision led to multiple lawsuits, this one from Mayerova and Chretien being the last one standing, and the lone successful one from the athletes' perspective.
Steeh wrote in September that financial hardship isn't an excuse to work around Title IX responsibilities. Eastern Michigan long has had significantly more female than male students, yet far more male athletes than female athletes. As recently as 2016-17, the split was more than 60 percent of the student body, to less than 45 percent of athletes. Wetherbee said earlier this month that there has been progress on reversing that statistic in the last year.
"We are aware of Judge Steeh's ruling in this matter," Eastern Michigan said in a statement Tuesday evening. "As we have stated previously, we are determined to meet our Title IX obligations completely and efficiently. We will be studying the ruling and determining next steps in the days ahead."
In its statement, the university reiterated that prior to cutting the four programs in March, it offered 21 sports teams, most in the MAC. It said that "was not sustainable in the long term."
"Our actions reflect our determined efforts to be fiscally responsible and to realign resources so that we can continue to invest in the academic success, and the support of, our students," the university continued, in its statement.