Stanford athletes sue over program cuts, claim Title IX violation

Student-athletes in eight of 11 sports programs say they were misled by the university; athletes from five teams claim those deepened gender inequity.
By: | May 13, 2021
More than 240 students-athletes and 22 coaches participate in the 11 sports Stanford University plans to cut at the end of the 2020-21 school year.(GettyImages/Easyturn)GettyImages/Easyturn

Student-athletes from eight teams at Stanford University filed a pair of lawsuits in U.S. District Court on Wednesday – one claiming potential breach of contract and misrepresentation and one alleging possible Title IX violations – over the cancellation of 11 athletics programs.

In the first lawsuit, athletes claim they were “fraudulently induced” and misled into believing that Stanford would continue to field those programs as varsity sports, denying potential opportunities to play at other colleges or universities.

University officials in July said those cuts – happening at the end of the academic year – were necessary because of budget shortfalls brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, estimated to be more than $12 million in FY 21 and as much as $70 million over three years. The elimination of those nonrevenue-generating varsity programs (and making them club sports) would save $8 million. But law firm Winston & Strawn, which is representing the athletes, pointed out that Stanford has a “$29 billion endowment” it could have utilized to prevent that from occurring.

Attorneys and athletes are asking for a preliminary injunction to keep teams from being disbanded as the case proceeds.

“Stanford’s misrepresentations to these students and their families is in violation of California law and threatens to cause them lasting irreparable harm,” said sports law attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who is Co-Executive Chairman at Winston & Strawn, the legal firm representing the athletes. “The students will lose the irreplaceable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fulfill their dreams to compete at the varsity level if Stanford is not stopped from eliminating these teams. Stanford has to live up to the relationship of trust it created with these athletes.”

Of the programs set to be eliminated – men’s fencing, women’s fencing, field hockey, women’s lightweight rowing, women’s squash, synchronized swimming, wrestling, and men’s volleyball – five involve women’s sports that prompted the second lawsuit, which attorneys claimed would force gender inequity among programs at the university.

“One reason Title IX has been so successful at increasing women’s participation in college sports is the requirement that schools offer athletic opportunities to women and men that are proportional to the percentage of women and men in the student body,” said Rebecca Peterson-Fisher of The Liu Law Firm, P.C., which is handling the Title IX suit. “Even before the planned cuts, Stanford’s athletic opportunities disproportionately went to men. Their plan to cut these teams will widen the gender gap even further. Stanford cannot go forward with these planned cuts without further violating Title IX.”

The history of the cuts

In July when it announced the elimination of the programs, Stanford officials did address the potential of gender equity, Title IX, and imbalance in the programs.

“While painful, the discontinuation of these 11 sports at the varsity level and the associated reductions in our support staff will create a path for Stanford Athletics to return to fiscal stability while maintaining gender equity and competitiveness,” university officials said in an open letter to the Stanford community. One of its many considerations for elimination, in fact, was this: “Impact on gender equity and Title IX compliance.”

In the letter, officials also discussed the impact of the overall decision to make those cuts and why they felt they were necessary.

“Many of these sports currently compete without a full complement of scholarships, coaches and resources. After careful analysis, we concluded there was no realistic path to ensuring that they have all of the resources needed to compete at the highest level without hindering our ability to support our other 25 varsity sports,” the July letter said. “The primary alternative to this decision would have been a broad and deep reduction in support for all 36 of our varsity sports, including the elimination of scholarships and the erosion of our efforts to attract and retain the high-caliber coaches and staff needed to provide an unparalleled scholar-athletics experience.”

Instead of that option, which the university said would be “antithetical to Stanford’s values and our determination to be excellent in all that we do”, it opted to eliminate the programs. Through the years those programs, Stanford noted, have produced a collective 20 national championships and 27 Olympic medalists.

The letter closed with this: “Today’s announcement brings the three of us [President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell and Director of Athletics Bernard Muir] great sadness, though we realize ours is nowhere near the level of pain and disappointment that our student-athletes, parents, alumni and supporters of the impacted sports are experiencing.”

At the time, Stanford said it would honor their coaches’ contracts and athletes’ scholarships or support “students in every way possible” if those chose to move on from the university. Other staff was offered a severance pay.