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Eastern Michigan University settles women's sports lawsuit, awards two athletes $125K

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Eastern Michigan University does not have to reinstate its softball program but has committed to numerous initiatives to create more opportunities for female athletes and has agreed to a six-figure payout to two student-athletes who sued the university, according to a settlement filed in federal court Tuesday.

Eastern Michigan has settled a Title IX lawsuit with two athletes, agreeing to pay a former softball player $100,000 and a tennis player $25,000 as well as their legal fees.

Former Eastern Michigan softball player Ariana Chretien — whose team isn't coming back — will receive a $100,000 payment, and Eastern Michigan tennis player Marie Mayerova — whose team has been reinstated — will receive $25,000. The university also agreed to pay both athletes' legal fees after they brought the suit 15 months ago.

The agreement was approved by Judge George Caram Steeh of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Under terms of the settlement, claims against the school, president James Smith, athletic director Scott Wetherbee and the Board of Regents are dismissed.

Chretien and Mayerova sued after Eastern Michigan announced in March 2018 the elimination of four sports teams: women's softball and tennis, and men's wrestling and swimming and diving. It was a decision the cash-strapped university's athletic department said would save $2.4 million annually.

The athletes, however, argued the decision to eliminate the women's sports was haphazard on numerous fronts — front and the center the school's already poor percentages when it came to the split between male and female athletes, in relation to the student body. There were more male athletes, but far more female students at large, a clear violation of Title IX legislation. The athletes also argued the timing of the decision cost them the opportunity to transfer to other schools and continue their athletic careers.

The athletes originally sought for the university to reinstate both sports. Eastern Michigan agreed to bring back tennis, and that team began play again in the fall and is gearing up for the spring season. The university, though, repeatedly balked at softball, saying it didn't make fiscal sense nor did it provide enough scholarship opportunities for female athletes.

The university said it would instead add women's lacrosse, which the school estimates will cost $650,000 a year and include as many as 36 athletes when it begins play in 2022, while softball cost $870,000 for as many as 20 athletes.

Under the settlement, Eastern Michigan will go ahead with lacrosse and now scrap softball for good. A lacrosse coach must be hired by this spring.

"Eastern Michigan University has approached our discussions with the plaintiffs positively and constructively," Eastern Michigan spokesman Geoff Larcom told The News on Tuesday night. "Our team has worked together with the plaintiffs' legal counsel for 15 months to arrive at a fair result. "The university fully embraces Title IX and the support of our female student-athletes at all levels, and we have worked diligently with plaintiffs to draft and present a Consent Decree that reflects these values. This settlement reflects the university’s continued laser focus on compliance with Title IX."

Also among the terms of the settlement:

►Eastern Michigan pledges to achieve "substantial proportionality," no more than 1.8 percent, between male and female student-athletes by spring 2023.

►Eastern pledges not to eliminate any women's sports before spring 2023 unless there are "circumstances beyond its control."

►EMU will commit an additional $2 million toward women's sports over the next three years, in addition to the costs to start the lacrosse program.

►The university will hire a Title IX consultant, and the court will appoint a third-party monitor to oversee that terms of the settlement are coming to fruition.

As recently as 2016-17, in numbers provided by the U.S. Department of Education, Eastern Michigan was way beyond in Title IX compliance, as less than 45 percent of its athletes were female, compared to nearly 60 percent of the student body. Wetherbee said by fall 2018, 52 percent of student-athletes were female.

“We have already taken a number of significant steps forward regarding Title IX compliance," Larcom said.

"And the settlement preserves those moves and ensures that progress will continue."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984