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Quinnipiac University court decision serves as warning for Title IX compliance

By Linda Jean Carpenter, PhD, JD

The July, 2010 federal court decision in the Quinnipiac University Title IX case provides clear and useful information not just for Quinnipiac University but for the rest of us as well. The news headlines relating to the case generally refer solely to some aspect of whether competitive cheer is a sport or not. The case has much broader significance than that.

First, let’s start with a bit of background. Many schools have decided to cut teams as a way of meeting budgetary constraints or reconfiguring a program. Some schools have cut teams as a way of manipulating the ratio of male to female athletes in an attempt to appear closer to complying with Title IX’s requirement to provide equal access to participation opportunities.

In 2009 Quinnipiac decided to terminate its women’s volleyball team, as well as men’s golf and men’s outdoor track while adding a women’s competitive cheer team. Remember, Title IX is unconcerned about the number of teams but is rather focused on the number of participants. The proposed new team, competitive cheer, can carry a very large roster of participants. So if the competitive cheer team became a reality, the new team would help Quinnipiac look as though it was closer to compliance.

Whether competitive cheer is a ’sport’ for Title IX counting purposes is a question that has been broadly debated but never concretely decided. The Office for Civil Rights has issued a list of rather subjective criteria that an activity needs to meet in order to be considered a sport for Title IX purposes. (OCR Criteria) In the Quinnipiac case, if competitive cheer is considered a ’sport’ for Title IX purposes, it makes it easier for Quinnipiac to look like it is complying with Title IX. The court’s decision on this issue was that Quinnipiac’s competitive cheer group may, in the future, be a sport, but it does not yet fulfill the needed criteria. Note that the decision talks about Quinnipiac’s cheer team, not all cheer teams on other campuses. However, it is unlikely that competitive cheer groups found on other campuses would meet the criteria with any greater success.

The "sportness" of competitive cheer was not the solitary issue of the decision, nor perhaps even the most important. Quinnipiac did not place all its hopes on being able to count its competitive cheer participants as participants for Title IX’s sake. In addition, early in the case Quinnipiac was apparently intentionally but inappropriately manipulating and misreporting the actual number of male and female participants by setting artificial floors and ceilings for various team memberships and by altering those limits before and after the reporting date. Furthermore, Quinnipiac tried to clone its female track participants, at least for the sake of a Title IX count, by seeming to have many of them fully participate in indoor, outdoor and cross country track teams when, in reality, many of the female track athletes did not participate due to injury or being red shirted. Additionally, the court noted that the indoor and outdoor teams were merely adjuncts to the cross country team. None of these methods of inflating the numbers is unique to Quinnipiac. Many schools incorporate similar strategies in order to linger longer in discriminatory behaviors. The court was not fooled by the strategies and found, in sum, that Quinnipiac was in violation of Title IX’s equal access to participation requirement.

Both issues, competitive cheer’s ’sportness’ and roster manipulation have now been specifically and firmly addressed with clarity. Although the decision of the court in this particular case does not carry precedent value to the jurisdictions of other federal districts, it should serve as a very strong warning to schools who are still choosing to use strategies of obfuscation and misrepresentation to look like they are complying with the 38 year old law known as Title IX rather than doing the lawful as well as right thing for their students.


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