MSU swimmers sue university, say they feel like 'second-class citizens'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

A group of Michigan State swimmers is going to court to try and save their program.

Roughly three months after Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman announced the men's and women’s swimming and diving programs would be eliminated after the 2021 season, 11 members of the women’s team filed suit in federal court Friday, accusing Michigan State of violating Title IX gender-equity laws.

Michigan State has cut men's and women's swimming and diving.

Filed in federal court in Grand Rapids, the lawsuit is seeking an injunction that would keep Michigan State from eliminating the sport at the end of the season.

"If MSU is not restrained from eliminating women’s varsity swimming and diving, plaintiffs will never again have the opportunity to participate in this valuable educational experience at MSU — one that provides academic, physical, psychological, social, and even economic benefits for the rest of the participants’ lives," the lawsuit read. "There is no adequate remedy at law for this harm.”

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Michigan State spokesperson Emily Gerkin Guerrant said the university was not commenting on the lawsuit. Associate athletic director for communications Matt Larson also said there would be no comment on the pending litigation.

The decision to cut swimming and diving marked the first time Michigan State had eliminated a sport since ending its men's gymnastics program following the 2000-01 season. Other sports cut in Michigan State's history include men's fencing after the 1996-97 year, and men's lacrosse, which ended after the 1995-96 year. Boxing also ended as a varsity sport in 1959.

"Discontinuing a sport is one of the most difficult decisions for an athletic director and university leadership,” Beekman said in October, adding reasons behind the cut included finances and facilities. “It has a significant impact on members of our community, and when they hurt, we all hurt. While the decision we make today is final, we will continue to support our student-athletes and affected staff the best we can."

Named as plaintiffs in the case include current Michigan State swimmers Sophia Balow, Ava Boutrous, Julia Coffman, Kylie Goit, Emma Inch, Sheridan Phalen, Madeline Reilly, Olivia Starzomski, Sarah Zofchak, Taylor Arnold and Elise Turke. The lawsuit names MSU president Samuel Stanley, Beekman and the Board of Trustees as defendants.

"I feel abandoned by MSU, its athletic department," Reilly said in an affidavit filed with the lawsuit. "MSU did nothing to work with us to save the program despite requests by our team and alumni. I feel that the drive and determination of our current team and our alumni could have worked to arrive at a solution, but we were never given that opportunity by MSU."

The lawsuit is the latest step that current and former members of the swimming and diving team have taken to keep their sport from being eliminated.

During Wednesday’s Board of Trustees meeting, several alumni spoke to the board, pleading for them to reconsider and keep swimming and diving.

“Call this ongoing stream of objections here what you will — a monthly thorn in your side, perhaps — but the truth is how you decide to go about this matter will be a reflection of where you decide to go with MSU’s brand image,” said Andrea Bird Mahoney, a former MSU swim team co-captain from the early 1990s.

In a statement released Friday announcing the filing, Jill Zwagerman of Newkirk Zwagerman PLC, the firm representing the swimmers, referenced the Larry Nasar sexual-abuse scandal in criticizing how Michigan State treats female student-athletes.

“MSU has again decided that female athletes are disposable and hasn’t learned its lesson after the deplorable abuse scandal within its gymnastics program,” Zwagerman said. “MSU has chosen to treat its female athletes as second-class citizens by ignoring its duty and responsibility to them. We gave MSU the chance to do the right thing and reinstate swimming and diving, but once again, it chose to violate Title IX and the rights of women.”

One of the main allegations of the suit is that Michigan State “pads” the rosters of some sports in order to increase female participation numbers so Michigan State would meet Title IX compliance.

According to the lawsuit, in 2018-19, the NCAA Division I average rowing squad had 62.8 members while Michigan State carried 89 members. And the Division I average of all track teams combined (cross country, indoor track and field, and outdoor track and field) was 96.9. MSU carried 173 athletes while the suit alleged that 66 of those women never participated in a competition.

While there is a chance Michigan State is compliant in its participation numbers, a recent case provides some hope.

At the University of Iowa, where the university announced in August it was cutting the men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs — along with men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics — a federal judge last month granted an injunction blocking Iowa from dropping women's swimming for 2021-2022, at least.

Last year, a judge ordered Eastern Michigan to reinstate its previously eliminated women's tennis team.

Michigan State is one of two Division I schools in Michigan to cut sports this year. Central Michigan eliminated its men's track and field.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau