St. Cloud State University for years has failed to provide equal opportunities for female athletes and must rectify the discriminatory system immediately, U.S. District Judge John Tunheim ruled Thursday.
The judge found St. Cloud State to be out of compliance with Title IX, the federal civil-rights law from 1972 that requires gender equity in public education including athletics. Ten recent members of SCSU’s tennis and Nordic ski teams filed suit over the allocation of athletic resources on behalf of current and future female students.
“It’s yet another decision by a federal judge that says these public universities are not complying with Title IX,” said Donald Chance Mark Jr., the Minneapolis lawyer who represented the women, most of whom have since graduated.
St. Cloud State spokesman Adam Hammer provided a brief written statement, saying the university has supported women’s intercollegiate athletics for 50 years and has maintained women’s tennis and Nordic skiing during the legal fight.
“The university is in the process of reviewing the decision and remains committed to supporting women’s athletics and gender equity,” he said.
The case culminated in December with a weeklong trial before Tunheim. It was handled as a bench trial, meaning there was no jury and the decision rested solely with the judge.
Tunheim came down on the side of the young women, ordering SCSU to “take immediate steps to provide its female students with an equitable opportunity to participate in varsity intercollegiate athletics.”
He found the school’s administrators had lagged in keeping pace with developing interest in new sports programs for women, such as lacrosse. And he cited the school’s use of “roster management” as a means to achieve Title IX compliance.
The technique involves increasing the rosters of several women’s teams and decreasing men’s rosters. At trial, the women’s coaches talked about the consequences to their teams.
Basketball coach Lori Fish said that having a bigger team means that more players stand around and that she doesn’t have the time to work closely with them on their development. Softball coach Paula U’Ren expressed similar frustrations with being spread too thin.
In addition to ordering equity among the programs, Tunheim ordered immediate and specific steps to improve facilities and equipment for the women. He is requiring administrators to give him progress reports every six months.
“They have a lot of work ahead of them,” Chance Mark said. He added that the aim of the case was to get the attention of public universities that pledge Title IX compliance when they take millions in federal aid every year.
“It’s clear these universities take the money, don’t abide by the law and they don’t give the money back,” he said.
For instance, Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., has been in federal court multiple times regarding its lack of compliance with Title IX.
Inequitable locker rooms
Among Tunheim’s specific directives in the St. Cloud case: maintaining the women’s tennis and Nordic ski teams at a level comparable to other sports in the same tier, and to take steps to narrow the participation gap.
St. Cloud State organizes its athletics in three tiers, the top tier of which includes men and women’s hockey, men and women’s basketball, men’s football and women’s volleyball.
All Huskies teams compete in NCAA Division II, with the exception of the Division I men and women’s hockey squads.
With budget shortfalls because of declining enrollment, SCSU began cutting sports programs in March 2016. Tunheim’s order cited enrollment of 12,050 in 2011 that dropped to 8,506 in 2017. But he wrote that the difficulty caused by a shrinking budget doesn’t diminish gender equity requirements.
That includes locker rooms, Tunheim wrote, where SCSU also must “take immediate steps” to eliminate inequities between facilities used by men and women’s teams.
He ordered new facilities for the women’s Nordic ski team, which has been relegated to using an old handball room that lacks showers, toilets, privacy and ventilation.
Because passersby can look in through a window, the women change clothes in the corner or the hallway. The nearest bathroom is up three flights of stairs, the court said.
The team goes to another room to wax skis, but it’s so poorly ventilated that a safety administrator recommended buying a respirator for the skiers — a request that athletic director Heather Weems denied, the court said. Uniforms and practice gear for the team are replaced “roughly every eight years,” Tunheim wrote.
According to the court, the women’s tennis team lacked funding for a full season. On the road, four players shared hotel rooms and the women were told not to order drinks with their meals to save money. The team has no locker room.
Tunheim also is ordering renovations for Selke Field, where SCSU women play softball. Selke has “a small set of bleachers, an old and crumbling brick fence supplemented with a chain-link fence, and a scoreboard,” the ruling said. Coaches mow, drag, chalk and often water the field themselves.
The men’s team plays either at a municipal athletic complex with a press box, bleachers, concessions stand and a scoreboard, or at another city field with an ivy-covered fence and similar amenities. The city of St. Cloud maintains both fields.
Tunheim’s order called out in detail gender inequities across many sports at SCSU, even though he didn’t order immediate remedies in all. He noted that the school spends $50,000 more on equipment for men’s hockey than women’s, because men use more hockey sticks. On average, a male hockey player uses 33 sticks annually while a female player uses nine.
The two Huskies hockey teams use the same facility for games, and their locker rooms are in the same building and of similar size. But the men’s locker room has a sauna and the women’s doesn’t.
Space is available for a sauna in the women’s locker room “and there has been discussion about finishing it, but the coaches have not yet done so because they do not believe the women players will use it,” Tunheim wrote.