Eastern Michigan can hold off on softball for now, appeals court rules

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Eastern Michigan doesn't have to reinstate its softball program and hire a head coach by April 1 after federal appeals court granted a stay on Thursday.

Eastern Michigan University called for a timeout, and one has been granted.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday approved an emergency stay, more than a month after the university was court-ordered to reinstate its softball program and hire a head coach by April 1.

"Title IX requires equality between men's and women's teams," the appeals court wrote in its ruling, "not that certain teams (say women's softball) be reinstated than other sports teams be created, supported, or expanded."

Last month, Judge George Steeh of federal court in Ann Arbor  ordered, after months of mediation, that Eastern Michigan must reinstate softball for the 2019-20 season. The program was eliminated in a cost-cutting decision a year ago. Lawyers for the university quickly appealed, arguing Steeh acted like an "athletic director," overstepping in ordering softball be kept.

Leading up to last month's ruling, Eastern Michigan brass, including athletic director Scott Wetherbee, offered to a women's lacrosse program, which the school argued would help get the university more in line with Title IX regulations, while being more fiscally feasible and offering more scholarships for female athletes.

Eastern Michigan cut four sports programs in spring 2018 2018, including two women's teams: softball and tennis. The university is reinstating the tennis program, for 2019-20, and has hired a head coach.

The university has balked when it comes to softball, however, arguing the cost is prohibitive — approximately $870,000 a year to operate, as opposed to $650,000 for lacrosse.

The school said that cutting the four teams, including men's wrestling and swimming and diving, would save the university $2.4 million per year. It also would get the school in line with the rest of the teams in the Mid-American Conference, the school said. Before the cuts, Eastern's 21 sports teams were tops in the league.

"The university has maintained that the lower court's preliminary injunction was an overreach, essentially placing it in the role of athletic director and determining which sports the university should have," Eastern Michigan said in a statement released Thursday night.

"This is particularly important since the university presented and is prepared to implement a solution that more comprehensively addresses its Title IX responsibilities by adding more women student athletes to its rosters through the addition and expansion of other women's sports — actions that would significantly increase the number of participation opportunities for women student athletes, over and above those that would occur under the district court's original order."

For many years, Eastern Michigan's athletic-participation roster has fallen well short of the university's makeup, which long has had more female students than male students, while athletics hasn't reflected that.

Wetherbee has stated in court filings that trend is being reversed.

Laywers for the plaintiffs in this case, Eastern Michigan tennis player Marie Mayerova and softball player Ariana Chretien, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984