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Eastern Michigan appeals ruling, says federal judge acted like athletic director

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Staring at a court-mandated deadline to reinstate its softball program, Eastern Michigan University has filed an appeal, arguing the federal judge in the case overstepped his authority by playing "athletic director."

Staring at a court-mandated deadline to reinstate its softball program, Eastern Michigan University has filed an appeal, arguing the federal judge in the case overstepped his authority by playing "athletic director."

In a 25-page filing last week, university attorneys requested an emergency stay from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing the federal court's preliminary injunction "threatens irreparable harm to EMU."

Earlier this month, Judge George Steeh ordered that the university must have a softball coach in place by April 1, ahead of fielding a team for the 2019-20 season.

That ruling seemed to signal an end to an eight-month court battle started by two Eastern Michigan student-athletes after the university announced in March that it was cutting four sports — women's softball and tennis, and men's wrestling and swimming and diving — in an effort to cut $2.4 million from the athletic-department's budget.

Steeh initially ruled in September the decision didn't meet Title IX standards; Eastern, which has a student body predominantly female, long has had a history of having significantly more male student-athletes than female student-athletes.

Eastern athletic director Scott Wetherbee has said that trend is being reversed.

In a statement Tuesday, Eastern said:

"We are determined to meet our Title IX obligations completely and in a way that most benefits our student-athletes. For this reason, the university has asked the Court of Appeals to stay the district court’s preliminary injunction regarding the restoration of specific sports, pending the outcome of our appeal to the Sixth Circuit."

In November, Eastern announced it would reinstate the tennis team, and quickly rehired the former coach, Jayson Wiseman. It proved too late to field a team for this season — only two players are on the roster, including one of the student-athletes who brought the original lawsuit against the university — and now, instead, is focusing on the 2019-20 season, which would coincide with a return to the Mid-American Conference.

Eastern wasn't as eager to reinstate softball, despite the preliminary injunction by Steeh in September, and multiple conference meetings with lawyers for the student-athletes.

Instead, Wetherbee recently proposed adding women's lacrosse instead of softball, saying it would be more cost-effective while providing athletic opportunities to significantly more female student-athletes, helping meeting Title IX standards.

Wetherbee said lacrosse would cost the university about $650,000 a year, compared to about $870,000 for softball.

Steeh, a federal judge in Ypsilanti, denied the request earlier this month and installed the April 1 deadline to hire a softball coach, prompting Eastern's appeal.

Eastern, in its appeal, argues Steeh has a mistaken understanding of Title IX.

"Title IX does not permit federal judges to serve as athletic directors," university lawyers wrote in their appeal. "Title IX does not require the maintenance of any particular sports. Its sole concern is with the overall allocation of athletic participation opportunities and resources between genders."

In that regard, Eastern said, the March elimination of four sports affected more male athletes than female. After the reduction, Eastern said, the percentage of female student-athletes increased from 43 percent to 50 percent.

The decision to eliminate the four sports also was meant to get more in line with MAC schools. Eastern, at the time, offered 21 sports programs, most in the MAC, and that simply wasn't sustainable in the long-term, the university has said.

Still, the decision didn't sit well with Marie Mayerova, an Eastern tennis player, and Ariana Chretien, a softball player, who sued the university in June.

Lawyers for Mayerova and Chretien didn't immediately respond to request for comment.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984