UC Davis did not discriminate against three women cut from its men’s wrestling team in 2001, yet it failed to be in compliance with Title IX at that time, a U.S. District Court judge ruled on Wednesday.
Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr.’s 147-page ruling found that wrestlers Arezou Mansourian, Lauren Mancuso and Christine Ng were entitled to damages for the harm that they suffered as female students who wished to take part in intercollegiate athletics, but no punitive damages.
Having now stretched on for more than eight years, the case will head to another trial in November, this one a jury trial to decide what compensation the women should receive.
Damrell dismissed the women’s claims against four individual administrators — then-Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, Senior Associate Athletics Director Pam Gill-Fisher, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Bob Franks and Athletics Director Greg Warzecka.
The administrators had been accused of violating the women’s constitutional rights to equal protection, but were found by the court to have qualified immunity.
Universities across the country have been watching the UCD case because of its test of Prong 2 compliance under Title IX, the 1972 federal law prohibiting gender discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal money.
Universities are in compliance with Title IX if: they provide athletic participation opportunities proportionate to student enrollment, demonstrate a continual expansion of such opportunities for the underrepresented gender or can show they have accommodated the interests and abilities of the underrepresented gender.
UCD argued that it met the second of that three-pronged test.
Damrell agreed with the defendants that UCD has “a strong history of supporting women’s participation in athletics,” but found that during the period the three women were attending the school, UCD eliminated 60 intercollegiate sports opportunities for women. The number of female athletes also fell from 424 in 1998-99 to 363 in 2004-05.
“Such evidence demonstrates overall program contraction of actual female participation opportunities, not expansion,” Damrell wrote.
Key to the determination was UCD’s decision to eliminate two junior varsity teams. It cut women’s water polo and women’s lacrosse for the 2000-01 school year, at the request of their coaches, because there were few teams to play against.
Damrell agreed that the teams were cut for “legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons,” but wrote that “the failure to replace these opportunities prevents UC Davis from relying on Prong 2 to establish compliance.”
The judge weighed the testimony of two nationally known figures in women’s athletics: Donna Lopiano testified on behalf of the wrestlers, Christine Grant for UCD.
Lopiano is the former chief executive officer of the Women’s Sports Foundation and athletic director of the University of Texas at Austin. Grant is the longtime athletic director of the University of Iowa. Both are past presidents of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.
They are also co-founders of Sports Management Resources, a consulting firm. Yet the colleagues came to very different conclusions about what took place at UCD.
Both testified that universities should be adding new sports every two to three years to comply with the second prong of Title IX.
Grant, testifying against students for the first time, said the university deserved credit over time for adding three sports at once, in 1996-97; Lopiano disagreed.
Damrell wrote that he found Grant’s argument “persuasive,” but agreed with Lopiano that such a “credit” did not account for the elimination of the junior varsity teams.
The plaintiffs’ claims of discrimination in regards to the wrestling team were “meritless,” the judge wrote.
“Plaintiffs were not cut from the men’s team because of their sex,” the judge wrote. “Rather, plaintiffs were cut … because, like the other male student-athletes who did not make the roster, they could not compete at the Division I, Pac-10 level in intercollegiate men’s wrestling.”
Women had been practicing with the UCD wrestling team for about a decade when the plaintiffs arrived on campus, but, importantly, Damrell noted, the women lacked competition at other universities in California.
Therefore, he said, there was no expectation that a separate women’s team should be formed.
Wrestling coach Michael Burch testified that Warzecka, the athletic director, told him to cut Mansourian and Ng from the team before the 2000-01 season.
Warzecka said that wasn’t true, that he’d only told Burch to trim his roster. A parade of other coaches backed up Warzecka’s account.
When the women complained about their treatment, the administrators reinstated them, giving them the same chance as men who wanted to try out for the team.
Two tried out and failed to make the team; one did not try out.
Mansourian and Ng filed a complaint with the Department of Education, which cleared UCD of wrongdoing.
Burch was fired. He later settled a lawsuit claiming he was let go for sticking up for the female wrestlers. He received $725,000, but UCD admitted no wrongdoing, saying it chose to settle to avoid costly litigation.
On Wednesday, both sides claimed a measure of victory.
Attorney Noreen Farrell of Equal Rights Advocates, who represented the plaintiffs, said her clients were “extremely gratified that the court recognized there was a problem throughout the program at Davis.”
She said the judge had sent a “loud and clear” message to universities relying on Prong 2 compliance that they must follow through by providing more opportunities for women.
“Expansion means expansion,” Farrell said. “Forty years after Title IX was passed, universities can’t rely on excuses.”
Sacramento attorney Nancy Sheehan represented the university, which now says it is in compliance with Prong 1 of Title IX. She said the judge’s detailed ruling reflected “the complicated nature of the law in this area.”
“Although he found the opportunities that were lost as a result of dropping JV teams should have been replaced sooner, overall his findings reflect what we all know about the UC Davis athletics program: It is one of the best in the nation,” Sheehan said.
She added that her four individual clients, the UCD administrators, were “wrongfully portrayed” and felt “very vindicated.”
Without naming names directly, Damrell appeared to lay the blame for the three young women believing they were wronged at the feet of Burch and the likes of then-Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, D-Davis. For a time, Thomson threatened to withhold UCD’s state funding unless changes were made to the wrestling program.
“The court notes … that it finds the evolution and potential impacts of this case troubling…,” the judge wrote.
“Based upon blatant misrepresentations by a person plaintiffs trusted, who manipulated such trust for personal motives wholly unrelated to gender equity; subsequent misinterpretations by plaintiffs of the conduct of UC Davis athletic administrators, who undoubtedly had the best interest of all their students at heart; and interference and advocacy by media and public figures, who were unaware of all the facts, plaintiffs believed that they had been wronged.”
Damrell cast some doubt about whether the women would be able to show they suffered damage, a point Sheehan echoed.
Countered Farrell, the women’s attorney, “We’ll see what a jury thinks about that.”
— Reach Cory Golden at email@example.com or (530) 747-8046.