By Courtney L. Flowers, Ph.D. is an Associate professor of Sport Studies at Texas Southern University
A federal judge from the District of Minnesota denied a former University of Minnesota student-athlete’s motion for preliminary injunction to reinstate the men’s gymnastics team.
In 2020, the University of Minnesota eliminated men’s gymnastics, men’s tennis, and men’s indoor & outdoor track & field citing financial burdens and Title IX compliance. As result, Evan Ng, a former student-athlete on the men’s gymnastics team at the institution alleged sex discrimination under Title IX and violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the fourteenth Amendment.
The athletic program was required to comply Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681-88 (Title IX) because they are a component of University of Minnesota which receives federal funding. Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal financial support and states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance ․” 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a).
The plaintiff sought preliminary injunction to have the men’s gymnastics restored. A plaintiff is entitled to a preliminary injunction only if “(1) the threat of irreparable harm to the movant; (2) the state of the balance between this harm and the injury that granting the injunction will inflict on other parties litigant; (3) the probability that movant will succeed on the merits; and (4) the public interest. This should weigh in the favor of the plaintiff which the Court ruled it did not. Also, the Court found there was not a fair chance of success on the merits by the plaintiff.
To prove irreparable harm the plaintiff must provide evidence supporting “a sufficient threat of irreparable harm” to receive injunctive relief. The defendants contend the plaintiff’s 13-month delay in filing the motion proves no threat and the court agreed stating the delay negates a finding of irreparable injury because the delay was not reasonable.
Likelihood of Success on the Merits
Among the other reasons the court denied the motion, was the fact the plaintiff was unable to prove a “fair chance of prevailing”. Specifically, the Court had to examine each clause in the case.
a. Gender Discrimination Claim under Title IX
The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) permits three methods for Title IX compliance. An institution is in compliance if it meets any one of the following parts of the test:
(1) The number of male and female athletes is substantially proportionate to their respective enrollments; or
(2) The institution has a history and continuing practice of expanding participation opportunities responsive to the developing interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex; or
(3) The institution is fully and effectively accommodating the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex.
The plaintiff contends eliminating the men’s gymnastics team was a violation of Title IX however the defendants denied this allegation and the Court agreed citing Chalenor v. University of North Dakota. Similarly, the courts in this case had to consider whether Title IX prohibits a public university from eliminating a men’s athletic team for compliance and if gender balancing and budgetary issues were reasons for cutting men’s athletic teams.
The Courts found the University of North Dakota did not violate Title IX when it eliminated the men’s wrestling program. Hence showing the plaintiff did not have a fair chance of success on the merits of his Title IX claim.
b. Section 1983 Claim for Gender Discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause
The plaintiff alleged the decision to eliminate men’s gymnastics was a based-on gender therefore failing the meet intermediate scrutiny standard under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause. The defendants claimed this was an impermissible collateral attack on Title IX which the Court agreed as the plaintiff admitted that he was not alleging Title IX was unconstitutional.
In addition, the Court found the defendants met the second prong of the intermediate scrutiny test when they considered gender as a measure to protect the interests of a disproportionately burdened gender. As such the university’s use of the proportionality was permissible which weighed into the judgment of not issuing the injunction.
Balance of harm
In considering balance of harm the court had to examine “the threat to each of the parties’ rights and economic interests that would result from granting or denying the preliminary injunction”. The Court agreed the plaintiff was harmed by losing his opportunity to compete on the men’s gymnastics team yet, issuing an injunction would not resolve this harm. Particularly, the plaintiff could not compete that year because the coaches were no longer at the university and only four members of the team remained at the university.
The plaintiff also argued that public interests favored the preservation of constitutional rights and eliminating gender discrimination. Yet again the Court found he was unable to meet the burden of showing a fair chance of success on the merits. Further the Court found public interests rested with the University by deciding to comply with Title IX.