Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D., Senior Writer & Professor, Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College, firstname.lastname@example.org
In a novel settlement agreement, La Salle University avoided a Title IX lawsuit by agreeing to offer athletic opportunities proportional to enrollment or, in the event of falling short of that standard in the academic year 2021-2022, automatically reinstating women’s teams cut in the fall of 2020 and adding more women’s teams until the proportionality standard is met (Bailey Glasser, 2021; Libit, 2021).
La Salle’s Decision to Cut Teams Characterized as Strategic & Not About Cost Cutting
On September 29, 2020, then La Salle University President Colleen Hanycz* and director of athletics Brian Baptiste announced a plan to cut seven (four men’s and three women’s) of its 25 varsity athletic teams, a decision that affected an estimated 130 athletes and a third of the athletic department. The teams on the list to be cut included baseball, men’s swimming and diving, water polo, and tennis as well as women’s tennis, softball, and volleyball. According to an open letter sent to the campus community, the restructuring of the athletic department was an outgrowth of a comprehensive review undertaken to address concerns that the athletic department simply did not have the resources to sustain the number of teams offered (Hanycz & Baptiste, 2020).
Noting that La Salle offered more varsity teams compared to their peers in the Atlantic 10 conference, Hanycz and Baptiste (2020) stated “The size of our athletics department compromises our ability to provide an exceptional, transformational experience for our student-athletes. Our resources and support services for our student-athletes are stretched too thinly across too many sports teams” (para. 5).
La Salle’s athletics department review had three identified outcomes: to reallocate resources to strengthen the experience for athletes and to improve competitiveness and overall quality. There was also an intention to bring the size of the department in line with the average number of teams offered in their conference, the Atlantic 10 (19 teams), and the NCAA (18 teams).
Characterizing the decision as a strategic one and not a cost-cutting measure, school officials estimated that it would take $100 million in endowment, scholarship assistance, and capital improvements to retain the teams slated for elimination (Staff, 2020). President Hanycz emphasized continuing to offer a relatively large number of athletic teams compared to others in the conference was not feasible given that La Salle was situated in the bottom quartile of the conference in overall enrollment (Ralph, 2020).
La Salle Men’s Swimming & Diving Are Reinstated
In the aftermath of the announcement, La Salle’s administration expressed an openness to reconsidering their decision if teams shared new and compelling information and if they were able to meet or exceed specified fundraising goals by the end of April 2021. On that basis, the men’s swimming team was reinstated in May of 2021 after surpassing the required $300,000 benchmark (“La Salle reinstates…”, 2021; Sutherland, 2021). In reviewing the pledge total reported on Save La Salle Swimming and Diving website, a total of $400,261 was pledged, with 78% of that coming from family and friends and the remainder (22%) contributed from La Salle alumni.
La Salle Athletics Accused of Violating Female Athletes Rights Under Title IX
Within three weeks of that announcement, two of La Salle’s women volleyball players retained Arthur Bryant of Bailey Glasser and notified President Hanycz that they intended to pursue a class action lawsuit because female athletes at La Salle (and potential female athletes) were deprived of an equal opportunity to participate in athletics and were not receiving equal treatment as required by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Bryant, 2021). Based on the information reported on the university’s website regarding enrollment and number of athletes competing on teams in 2019-2020, La Salle was disproportionately offering male athletic opportunities in excess of their representation in the general student body. Even with the cuts to baseball, men’s tennis, and men’s water polo, the university would still have fallen short of Title IX’s expectation that athletic opportunities be offered to female and male athletes proportional to their enrollment (Bryant, 2021).
Nine months to the day after women’s teams were cut at La Salle, the university issued a statement that it would launch a gender equity review during the 2021-2022 academic year with the goal of creating a gender equity plan to go into effect in 2022-2023 designed to “…maintain and strengthen Title IX compliance across all aspects of the University’s intercollegiate athletics program” (Staff, 2021, para. 1).
One of the most interesting parts of the settlement agreement is the stipulation that if La Salle fails to provide proportional opportunities to female athletes in 2021-2022 they are obligated to immediately reinstate the women’s teams cut and continue to add additional women’s teams until compliance is achieved. The magnitude of the proportionality gap would dictate which of the teams is reinstated first and the number of athletic participation opportunities it would take to address that gap. In the eventuality that women’s teams are reinstated and/or added, La Salle also agreed to commit to those teams for at least five years. La Salle is further obligated to comply immediately with Title IX’s equal treatment provisions in the specific areas of travel, facilities, gear, medical services, and food. La Salle also agreed to an accountability measure that requires public disclosure of enrollment and athletic participation information on its website along with the underlying data (Bailey Glasser, 2021).
*President Hanycz was hired by Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio in the spring of 2021 and La Salle appointed Tom Shaughnessy as interim president in May of 2021.
Bailey Glasser. (2021, June 29). La Salle University agrees to provide female student-athletes with equal treatment, come into compliance with Title IX, and add as many women’s teams as that takes. Press Release. Retrieved from https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/la-salle-university-agrees-to-provide-female-student-athletes-with-equal-treatment-come-into-compliance-with-title-ix-and-add-as-many-womens-teams-as-that-takes-301322131.html
Bryant, A. (2021, May 21). Letter to President Colleen Hanycz RE: Elimination of Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Teams in Violation of Title IX. Retrieved from https://www.sportico.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Letter-to-President-Hanycz.pdf
De George, M. (2020, October 11). Though “blindsided” by cuts, La Salle men’s swimming fighting hard to survive. Swimming World Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/news/though-blindsided-by-cuts-la-salle-mens-swimming-fighting-hard-to-survive/
Hanycz, C., & Baptiste, B. (2020, September 29). An open letter to the La Salle and Explorer Athletics community. La Salle News. Retrieved from https://www.lasalle.edu/blog/2020/09/29/an-open-letter-to-the-la-salle-and-explorer-athletics-community/
“La Salle reinstates men’s swimming and diving.” (2021, May 3). Press release. Retrieved from https://www.lasalle.edu/blog/2021/05/03/la-salle-reinstates-mens-swimming-and-diving/
Libit, D. (2021, June 29). To avoid lawsuit, La Salle agrees to unique Title IX settlement. Sportico. Retrieved from https://www.yahoo.com/now/avoid-lawsuit-la-salle-agrees-190133464.html
Ralph, P. (2020, September 30). La Salle University cutting 7 athletics teams amid financial challenges. The Philly Voice. Retrieved from https://www.phillyvoice.com/la-salle-university-sports-cuts-athletics-programs/
Save La Salle Swimming and Diving. (2021). Pledge total – total amount raised by decade. Retrieved from https://www.savelasalleswimminganddiving.com/pledge-total
Staff. (2020, October 1). La Salle athletics FAQ. Goexplorers.com. Retrieved from https://goexplorers.com/sports/2020/9/29/la-salle-athletics-faq.aspx
Staff. (2021, June 29). Update on La Salle athletics and its commitment to Title IX. Press release. Retrieved from https://goexplorers.com/news/2021/6/29/general-update-on-la-salle-athletics-and-its-commitment-to-title-ix.aspx
Sutherland, J. (2021, February 2). La Salle lays out fundraising path to revive men’s swim and dive. Swim Swam. Retrieved from https://swimswam.com/la-salle-university-lays-out-fundraising-pathway-to-revive-mens-swim-dive/